History of Germania Männerchor
With the dawn of a new century, there comes a human need to look upon the past as well as forward to the future. This year, Germania Männerchor’s 100th anniversary, we take time to reflect upon our first century with great pride. In putting together the history of our club, we have drawn from the club archives, numerous program books, past written histories, minutes, photographs, and the memories preserved by past members and offered by current members of Germania’s family of organizations. We would like to thank the Ladies Auxiliary, Damenchor (Ladies Chorus), and Stadtverband for its many years of devoted service to Germania and Evansville. We look forward with hope to the next 100 years of Gemütlichkeit!
Stephen Rode & Michael Kuhn
February 4, 2000
As Germans settled in the United States, they tended to locate in close proximity to each other. This encouraged the continuation of their German lifestyles. It was much easier to adjust to this new land if they could retain some of their familiar behaviors, such as shopping at a German baker or butcher, or enjoying a beer in a German tavern or beer garden. In his free time, the German immigrant preferred to be with his fellow countrymen. This resulted in a large number of German organizations being formed across the United States that enabled the immigrants to gather socially and continue various aspects of German life. There were singing societies, athletic clubs, mutual insurance societies, and in harbor cities (such as Philadelphia and New York) there were charitable agencies founded to assist new immigrants.
Everywhere Germans settled, singing societies were formed. In the 1840’s, the numerous societies had united in the national Nord-Amerikanischer Sängerbund (North American Singers’ Association) in Cincinnati, Ohio. In Evansville, Indiana, several singing societies were formed in the 19th century, the largest of which were the Liederkranz, founded in the 1850’s, and the Concordia Gesangverein.
It was in this spirit that several song-loving German immigrants gathered at the home of George Kuebler (1120 Fulton Avenue) on Sunday, January 21, 1900. They discussed the possibility of forming a new German singing society. The eight men in attendance voted in favor of this and set the date for their first meeting on Sunday, February 4, 1900 at Joe Benken’s Halle (Hall), a tavern on the corner of Delaware and Second Avenue.
Fourteen men showed up for that first meeting at “Uncle Joe’s” Hall and organized themselves as Germania Männerchor von Evansville (Germania Men’s Chorus of Evansville). Adolph Dubber was elected as the first president. Benken’s Hall was rented for two dollars per month. Singing rehearsals were scheduled every Friday and the business meetings were set for the first Sunday afternoon of each month. Singer Hermann Thuerbach was elected as the chorus director.
The singers had enthusiasm, but no money. Singer Heinrich Boos constructed a box in which the singers would put their nickels and dimes. After three rehearsals, they had collected $5.00, which was used for the purchase of music. Their first public performance was held on Saturday, February 24, 1900 in Benken’s Hall. It was a huge success. Ten friends of the singers, including landlord “Uncle Joe” Benken, enlisted as the first passive (now social) members of Germania Männerchor that evening.
The organization grew quickly. By July of 1900, there were 49 social members in addition to the 14 singers. Records indicate that the society considered themselves a family and they adopted a motto of “einer für alle, und alle für einen” (one for all, and all for one). The first year closed with a Fall Concert on October 28, a Christmas celebration on December 23, and the first Stiftungsfest (Founders’ Day Celebration) on February 15. New singers joined in 1901. Among them was Robert Bock, who in a short time gave great service to the new society. Bock found an interest among the singers for dramatic arts and produced Germania’s first play In den Tiroler Gegend in the old Germania Halle, which stood across from the old courthouse, the current location of the Court Building.
In 1902, Germania Männerchor joined the Nord-Amerikanischer Sängerbund and took part in the National Sängerfest (Song Festival) in St. Louis. Adolph Dubber, founding member and first president moved to Los Angles in early 1903 and was named the first honorary member of the society at the Stiftungsfest on February 14, 1903 at Benken’s Hall. The chorus honored Dubber by singing his favorite song, Zwei Blümchen (Two Little Flowers), at that concert. This song, also believed to be the first song the chorus performed in 1900, has been sung at nearly every Stiftungsfest since. The year 1903 also marked the first death of an active singer. A stray bullet during a race riot in downtown Evansville killed young Robert Bock, singer and dramatic director. The singers participated in a ceremony at Locust Hill cemetery. Today, the singers still honor their deceased brothers by participating in funeral services.
By 1907, the growing membership had forced the question of a club home. Benken’s Hall was still being rented for rehearsals, meetings and club gatherings, and Germania Halle downtown was rented for large concerts and dramas. A committee was appointed to find a new home. On March 4, 1908, it was approved to rent the 3rd floor of Dickmann’s Hall on 4th Street. The third floor was to be occupied by the Germania Männerchor only, thus becoming the club’s first actual home. A house committee was elected and house rules were approved on March 15, 1908. But as the membership grew, it became obvious that his rented clubhouse would soon be too small. In 1909, it was decided to incorporate and the first Board of Directors was elected. Germania finally purchased its own home, the A.P. Lahr house on Fulton Avenue in 1910 for $6500.00. Singers and social members worked together to prepare the new home, move possessions from Dickmann’s Hall and purchase necessary furnishings. The first rehearsal in the new home took place on July 3, 1910. At this time, Germania had 38 active, 198 social and 8 honorary members. Within one month of moving into the new home, 38 new members had joined.
In this first home were a singers’ hall, a small stage, a billiards and game room, a janitor’s apartment, an officers’ room and two rooms on the second floor used solely by the ladies auxiliary, who had formed their organization on May 18, 1910. This home stood where the old boiler room (outside kitchen) is now located behind the current clubhouse. Dances and concerts were held in this house, but again the club was growing. By 1911, the number of social members had reached 354, along with a growing women’s and dramatic section. Even though modern electricity replaced gas lighting in the clubhouse in 1912, talk again turned to a larger hall. On May 23, 1913 the $6500.00 mortgage on the Lahr house was burned in an open meeting. A campaign to build a new home could now be pursued in earnest. Already in February of 1913, a building committee had been appointed to pursue plans and contracts.
At the August 28, 1913 meeting (the largest in club history), it was approved 78-28 to accept the contract of builder Philip Koch and the plans of architect Frank Schlotter. The cornerstone was laid on Sunday, October 19, 1913. The various club auxiliaries helped when possible. The ladies contributed $400.00 to the building fund and purchased necessary furnishings for $646.00. The drama auxiliary donated $1000.00 to pay for stage fixtures. In a 3-day festival, the new club was opened on May 24, 25 and 26, 1914. At this time, there were 32 singers and 620 social members.
The new clubhouse enabled much growth in the new society. In 1915, the children’s singing and athletic classes were started, as well as men’s and women’s athletic classes. There were 45 children, 38 women and 54 men enrolled in the first sessions.
In the fall of 1916, the second chorus director, William Eckert, became ill and eventually died on December 8 of that year. During his illness, Eckert’s personal friend, Benedict Lindenberger, led the choir. Lindenberger directed the choir at Professor Eckert’s funeral at Locust Hill Cemetery and soon became Germania third choir director. He would hold this position until the early 1960’s.
While the 1st World War had begun in Europe in 1914, the United States did not join in this battle against Germany until 1917. In an early history of the club, it was recorded that “war clouds broke out over our land like a bolt of lightning from heaven”. As sentiments turned against Germany, membership in all German clubs began to drop drastically. Other singing societies in Evansville were greatly affected. The Concordia Gesangverein shut its doors for good. The Liederkranz was forced to sell its home, and eventually folded in the 1920’s. Germania Männerchor also saw declining membership, but was determined to survive. Germania offered citizenship classes for new immigrants following the war to boost membership. Over 100 attended these various classes.
But the hard times were not over. On the heels of the 1st World War came prohibition and Germania was forced to close its doors, except for rehearsals and meetings. On the average, the doors were open three days per week. A movement began among some members to change the name of the society to English in an attempt to become more acceptable to the public. This was voted down with a resounding “Germania Männerchor bleibt Deutsch” (Germania Männerchor will remain German). Gradually, the membership began to rebound. Several members of the defunct Concordia Gesangverein joined Germania bringing with them Concordia’s library of music. The dramatic society presented the first of three “Lamasco Minstrels” in 1920, which was extremely successful and helped raise money in these lean years.
Germania’s first 25 years were celebrated with a concert on February 4 and a banquet on February 5, 1925. Gradually, Germania grew strong once again as the dark years of the 1st World War faded. The drama society continued to present one or two productions annually. In fact, the 1929 production of Neckar Lenz und Liebe was also presented in Jasper, Indiana. The choir continued to grow in size and popularity, not only in its own annual concerts, but appearing on local radio programs as well. In 1931, a full concert was broadcast live on radio. In 1933, prohibition was repealed and Germania’s future looked brighter than ever. The first Volksfest was held in September of 1934, and a public bingo was begun to help the club’s financial situation.
In 1937, the worst flood in its history hit Evansville. As the water rose, Germania was forced to halt all activities. The entire building was turned over to the Red Cross for the care of flood refugees. The interior of the Rathskeller was so damaged by the flood, that a complete renovation was necessary. The work was finished in 1939, giving the building its current appearance.
Despite this setback, the annual Volksfests and the bingos continued to insure a successful financial situation. The choir took frequent trips to appear with other German choirs in other cities. In 1941, Germania purchased its own picnic grounds, a 13-acre grove known then as Bumb’s Grove.
Shortly after the purchase, the United States again went to war with Germany. Although this war did not have quite the same negative effect as World War I, the typical “German” events were halted. The Volksfest was discontinued in the fall of 1941 and the drama society gave its final production in the same year, having presented approximately 35 plays and operettas in 40 years. The Volksfest would not reappear until 1962, and the next dramatic endeavor would not be until the St. Nikolaus Day Grandfest in 1975.
Germania actively supported the American effort against Hitler’s Germany. They participated in the local bond drives, forwarded boxes to members serving in the military, contributed to the Red Cross Canteen and shipped large quantities of cigarettes overseas.
The 1940’s saw other improvements. In 1942, a shelter house was installed in the park and picnic tables were purchased. In 1944, the choir performed their first concert in uniform, and in 1947, the old house was finally razed to make way for the new boiler house, which was built in the fall of 1947 by the Hoffmann Construction Company.
Germania’s 50th anniversary was celebrated with a gala concert at the Bosse High School Auditorium on Saturday, February 11, 1950 with guest choruses from Dayton, Cincinnati and Louisville. In that same year, Germania was accepted into the South Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana District and attended their first district Sängerfest as a full member in June of 1950 in Dayton, Ohio. The 1950’s proved to be one of the best decades in Germania’s history. In 1954, they hosted the first Evansville Sängerfest. The popularity of the club’s slot machines also contributed greatly to Germania’s finances. But as usual, the good times were short-lived. In the summer of 1959, the state of Indiana outlawed the machines. Existing records indicate an immediate loss in revenue. Average monthly House and Bar Committee reports dropped from $1400.00 income to under $700.00.
It was soon apparent that Germania was in great financial trouble. Several loyal members paid club bills out of their own pockets. To remedy this situation, drastic measures were taken. In 1962, it was decided to revive the Volksfests that had been discontinued during World War II. Although the first Volksfest was nowhere near the success of today’s festivals, members recognized the potential income from this event. Germania needed immediate help with their financial straits. In July of 1964, unable to keep up the cost of both the Fulton Avenue clubhouse and the grove, the grove was sold to the St. Boniface Social Club (now Twin Towers) for $13,500.00. Also in 1964, it was approved to hold all meetings in the English language in an effort to attract younger non-German speaking members.
By 1975, the stage was set for a Germania renaissance. The 75th anniversary was celebrated and among the entertainment was Germania’s own band, formed by Dr. Fred Kiechle. Kiechle, the choir accompanist, saw the band as a means to finance scholarships for local high school students studying the German language. The Oberbayerische Blaskapelle (now the popular Rhein Valley Brass), did in fact raise money for several scholarships. Today, Germania continues to give monetary awards to local German language students at the annual Student Awards Banquet. Funding for these awards today is provided by the annual golf scramble.
The success of the Volksfest, rentals of the hall and the addition of new enthusiastic members also ensured a bright future. Member Bill Greer suggested the idea of a Christmas program patterned after an English madrigal. The body embraced the idea, and Greer took on the task of writing and producing the program himself. The first St. Nikolaus Day Grandfest was presented in December of 1975. Although the first production was in no way flawless, it was greatly accepted by the public and became an annual event until 1986.
Germania became even more well-known to the public in the 1980’s, appearing at many local community functions, as well as on national television. Several factors are responsible for this activity. In the late 1970’s, a new wave of young members joined the chorus, bringing with them a renewed interest in German heritage. Also, 1983 was celebrated nationally as the tri-centennial year of German immigration into the United States. As 1983 approached, publicity for this event inspired great interest in German traditions and heritage nationwide.
On June 19 and 20, 1981, Germania sponsored the Freedom Festival International Soccer Tournament bringing in teams from St. Louis, Chicago and Herne, Germany to compete against the Evansville United Team. Germania members housed the Herne players, coaches and families. This event brought much attention to Germania and continued for two more years.
The annual Volksfest also profited from the renewed interest in German culture, as record crowds filled the event every August. This phenomenon caught the eye of the producers of NBC’s “Real People” in 1983. Evansville rolled out the red carpet for the cast and crew of this popular variety series on September 6, 1983, as the cameras rolled in Germania’s Rathskeller for a “recreated” Volksfest. The program aired nationwide on November 16, 1983.
Also contributing to Germania’s growing popularity were appearances with the Evansville Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus. On January 19, 1985, the Männerchor joined them for a performance of Gustav Mahler’s magnificent second symphony, “Resurrection”. This performance also aired on local radio. Later, the Männerchor also participated in two separate performances of Carl Orff’s monumental “Carmina burana”.
After the 1986 performance of St. Nikolaus Grandfest XII, it was decided to discontinue the annual production. After a one-year hiatus, the program was revived in 1988 as Carols by Candlelight. The show’s creator, Bill Greer, continued in his role for that first performance, but writing and directing duties were taken over by Glenn Boberg, Mike Kuhn and Randy Dick in 1989. Bill Greer eventually moved to Florida and has been named an honorary member.
Germania has continued its many traditions into the 1990’s and now into its second century. Concerts are still held annually, the Volksfest continues to draw thousands of guests every August, the Student Awards still honor those studying German, and the Christmas program continues to delight its audiences. As we face our next 100 years, we remain true to the ideals and values set forth by our fourteen founders and look forward to another century of Gemütlichkeit.