La Crosse’s German Vereins: Their Rise and Decline, Part 2

Posted by Scott on August 30, 2021

(Written by Gabriel Eagon, UWL Capstone Project, edited by Jenny DeRocher, Archives Staff)

By 1914, La Crosse’s German community had experienced a demographic decline for nearly 15 years, which contributed to the dissolution of many of its social clubs, or Vereins, that had been central to the local German community. To read more about this initial decline, read a previous blog on this topic. Two Vereins that still existed in 1914—the Deutscher Verein and the Frohsinn Singing Society—pursued different strategies in the face of demographic decline that ensured their survival. Luckily, both of these Vereins have surviving records that are held at the La Crosse Public Library Archives so that we can explore this story.

The Deutscher Verein slowly assimilated, attracting small numbers of non-Germans. The Frohsinn Singing Society remained committed to the German language and culture, which continued to attract German immigrants. In 1914, each had achieved a level of stability that suggested their futures were secure, and were it not for events transpiring far across the sea in Europe, it is entirely possible that they both would have endured well into the second half of the twentieth century. Instead, what began as a regional conflict in the Balkans spiraled into the global conflict known as the Great War, which would have consequences halfway around the world for the German Vereins in La Crosse.

For the first three years of WWI, the US federal government maintained a policy of neutrality, but that did not mean there was no internal division over which side the US should support. The two major combatants in WWI were the Central Powers (primarily consisting of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire) and the Allied Powers (consisting initially of Great Britain, France, and Russia).

US citizens tended to sympathize with the side with which they shared heritage. For example, Americans with British heritage tended to express sympathy for Great Britain’s and the Allies' war effort, while Americans with German heritage tended to express sympathy for Germany and the Central Powers' war effort. Since Americans with British heritage made up a majority of the country and tended to control major institutions, like newspapers and the federal and local governments, this led to many German-Americans—Wisconsin’s largest ethnicity at the time—feeling isolated and under attack. 

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This map (click for bigger image) is printed in the book Wisconsin's Past and Present: A Historical Atlas, by the Wisconsin Cartographers' Guild (University of Wisconsin Press, 1998), page 19.


Many Germans would attempt to push back against this perceived Anglo-bias and find ways to support the German war effort, and the Vereins led these efforts. In La Crosse, this resistance was led by the Deutsch Amerikanischer Central Verein (German American Central Society). The Central Verein, as it was commonly called, did not enroll individual members and instead served as a way for La Crosse’s German Vereins to coordinate with one another on political issues. It was a branch of the National German-American Alliance (NGAA), which had been resisting efforts to institute Prohibition in the US since 1903. Following the outbreak of WWI, NGAA began lobbying against a US foreign policy that it saw as being too favorable towards the Allies, in spite of the country’s neutral status. 

The Deutscher Verein and the Frohsinn Singing Society were the two biggest contributors to the Central Verein. The Central Verein’s quarterly meetings were held at either Germania Hall—owned by the Deutscher Verein—or at Frohsinn Hall, and many of the Central Verein’s executive board members also served in leadership roles in the two groups. Like the NGAA on the national level, the Central Verein protested against Anglo-bias in local institutions and led efforts to support Germans affected by the war. Just over a month after the war began, the Central Verein met to draft a statement condemning Anglo-bias in the local English-language press coverage of the war. The Nordstern printed this statement on September 11, 1914 (page 8):

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As this quote demonstrates, La Crosse’s Germans did not see their support for Germany as being in conflict with American patriotism, but instead accused the English-language press of violating American values of inclusivity by being too overtly pro-British in their coverage of the war. At this same meeting, the Central Verein agreed to organize a fundraiser to aid wounded German and Austrian war veterans, and a few months later, in January 1915, several of La Crosse’s German Vereins protested the shipment of weapons to the Allies. 

One of the most high-profile examples of support for the German cause was the local decision to host Charles Hexamer, president of the NGAA, to speak at Germania Hall. Hexamer was nationally known for making incendiary comments about the US relationship with Great Britain. On December 4, 1915, Hexamer delivered a speech at Germania Hall in La Crosse in which he praised Germany and denounced the US relationship with Great Britain describing it as one of “disgraceful truckling… unworthy of our fathers and national character,” as the La Crosse Tribune recounted in a December 4, 1915, article.

Non-Germans in La Crosse tolerated such rhetoric while the US was neutral, but that quickly changed when the US officially entered WWI on the side of the Allies on April 7, 1917. La Crosse German-Americans who lived through this period would later report incidents of anti-German discrimination and acts of vandalism. In a 2003 UWL Oral History Program (OHP) interview, Jake Hoeschler recalled how his uncle Frank Hoeschler had his “Zahn Artzt” (Dentist) sign scratched off his office door. In a 1978 OHP interview, Carl August Boerner, recalled being accused of hosting pro-German meetings in an upstairs room of his drug store by his own customers. 

City government also acted on local anti-German bias when they renamed Berlin Street to Liberty Street. Germans in La Crosse would also have been aware of violent anti-German incidents that occurred throughout the country. On April 5, 1918, the La Crosse Tribune reported that Robert Prager, a German in Collinsville, Illinois, was lynched for allegedly making “remarks derogatory toward President Wilson.” While this lynching was an isolated incident, and there were no reports of such violent attacks occuring in La Crosse, German-Americans would still have no doubt been intimated by the event and taken steps to ensure their own safety. 

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La Crosse Tribune 5 April 1918


Such anti-German incidents and sentiment had a dramatic impact on the city’s Vereins, as members rushed to distance themselves from anything that might lead people to question their American loyalty. Between 1917 and 1919, the Deutscher Verein’s membership fell from 227 to 168, a 30% drop in membership. The Frohsinn Singing Society also experienced a decline in membership, but it was not nearly as dramatic as their numbers would fall from 95 in 1917 to 85 in early 1919, just a 12% drop. 

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Graph depicting the membership decline of Deutscher Verein and the Frohsinn Singing Society, 1910-1939. Created by Gabriel Eagon.


In addition to the effect on membership, anti-German sentiment also resulted in the Deutscher Verein’s board of directors agreeing to hold a meeting to vote on whether to change the society's name in 1918. In a notice sent to members that the La Crosse Tribune published an excerpt from on July 8, 1918, the board cited “[the] very evident sentiment prevailing among the members and having in view the best interests of the society,” as justifications for holding a vote to change the name. 

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La Crosse Tribune 28 July 1918


On September 7, the society officially changed their name to the Pioneer Club and the name of Germania Hall to Pioneer Hall. From this date onwards the Pioneer Club further limited their use of the German language as well, no longer even daring to use it in their own internal records.

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Pioneer Club's meeting minutes, MSS A, Box 3, Folder 1. On the left, you can see the August 1918 meeting minutes were written in German. On the right, the meeting minutes from September 1918 were written in English.


On November 11, 1918, WWI came to an end, and anti-German sentiment began to fade in the years that followed. But the effects of the war on the Pioneer Club and the Frohsinn Singing Society were long lasting. The war disrupted the Pioneer Club’s assimilationist strategy as anti-German sentiment led to both non-Germans and German-Americans abandoning the club in droves.

The Pioneer Club never fully recovered from this steep fall in membership during WWI. Through the 1920s, they gradually lost members each year until there were just 99 by 1930. Their low membership numbers lead to financial trouble for the club as they struggled to pay for the upkeep of Pioneer Hall. In 1936, the society voted to sell the building to the AFL-CIO to pay off their debts. Shortly thereafter, they voted to dissolve, bringing the Deutscher Verein’s 82 year history to an end. 

The Frohsinn Singing Society would fare better. While they had also lost members during WWI, their membership stabilized at around 70 during the 1920s. Unlike the Pioneer Club, the Frohsinn Singing Society's commitment to the German language and culture meant that it continued to attract German immigrants during this period, and these younger members helped boost their ranks as older members retired or died off. As a result, the Frohsinn Singing Society managed to survive the Great Depression and existed well into the second half of the 20th century, only dissolving in 1995 as its last members grew older. 

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Robert Isler served as the Director/Conductor of the Frohsinn Singing Society. He is pictured here (back row, second from left) with some other members in the early 1900s. Frohsinn Singing Society Records, MSS 164, Box 2, Folder 5.

 

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Decades later, in 1968, Robert Isler recieved a pin and certificate for being a member of the Frohsinn Singing Society for 50 years. Frohsinn Singing Society Records, MSS 164, Box 2, Folder 5. 

 

La Crosse’s German Vereins were a staple of the city for generations, since the founding of the first Turnverein (gymnastics society) in 1855 and through the early 20th century. While demographic decline and anti-German sentiment brought on by World War I led to the fall of many Vereins, the survival of the Frohsinn Singing Society into the 1990s demonstrated the resilience of the city’s German immigrants. 

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Members of the Frohsinn Singing Society on a float for the 1968 Oktoberfest parade. Frohsinn Singing Society Records, MSS 164, Box 2, Folder 5.


In the second half of the twentieth century, some organizations in La Crosse made efforts to reclaim the German heritage so many had tried to repress during WWI. Today, the city’s Oktoberfest celebration and brewing industry are examples of the persistence of German culture that would no doubt have made the city's early German pioneers proud. 

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