The German Hall

The German Hall was formerly located at 63 Clay Street. Today, Communicraft is located on the former site of the hall which once housed Manistee’s oldest social organization.

The German Hall was formerly located at 63 Clay Street. Today, Communicraft is located on the former site of the hall which once housed Manistee’s oldest social organization.

By the mid-19th Century, many people from different ethnic backgrounds (i.e. Polish, Scandinavian, Irish, German, etc.) were finding their way to Manistee and seeking employment in the area’s growing lumber industry.

Upon arriving here, many of these immigrants found ways to keep their ethnic identity alive in a new country. In the early 1870s, the German contingent of Manistee decided to construct a meeting hall for their new organization. For the next 40 plus years, the hall would go on to be used as the site for local German intuitions and become one of the most popular meeting places in the city.

One of the largest groups of incoming immigrants to arrive in the county during the mid-19th Century were natives of Germany. With plenty of work available in logging camps, they, along with the various other ethnic groups, made up the melting pot that became Manistee and helped usher in industry and commerce into the city and surrounding areas.

As such, the German people began to organize and construct churches as well as form organizations that would benefit their own people.

In 1865, a group of German men formed the Manistee Arbieter Unterstuetzungs Verein which was a German Mutual Aid Society whose purpose was to help German citizens of Manistee.

The early beginnings of the society were told by one-time president, F.W. Radtke, in an article published in the Manistee News Advocate on Sept. 6, 1935:

“Peter Jones, father of Miss Louise Jones, was the first president and Matthew Krons, Civil War colonel, the first secretary, but the thing was such a success when men like Charles Reitz, Michael Engelmann, Joseph and John Baur joined, that the boys had to have a place to meet. They found a place with Ronkel Brothers, who had a big shanty on Filer Street. They then formed a benefit society paying weekly sick benefits and funeral benefits.”

The structure was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1871 but was rebuilt as a spacious hall the following year on property located on Clay Street. The building itself was said to be capable of seating 500 people and according to an 1879 article published in the Manistee Times was, “…tastefully supplied with scenery and all the accompaniments for theaters, dances, concerts etc.”

As more people immigrated to Manistee, the German population continued to swell and by the 1880s, there were over 300 members of the German Mutual Aid Society. Although the society was the primary occupant of the building, it was also used by the American Aid Society as well as the Turnverien Society, an exercise club of sorts which was devoted to the physical development of its German members. Thus throughout the years, the structure became known under a variety of names including: the German Hall, Arbieter Hall, and Turner Hall.

While used as a place to benefit German citizens of Manistee, the hall also had a reputation for providing patrons with entertainment in the form of “spirits”. According to Curran N. Russell, former director of the Manistee County Historical Society:

“In the days of old this place (the German Hall) was considered to be a sort of ‘den of iniquity’ especially by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, because it contained a bar and dispensed beer. Many old country style dances were given with Charlie Gerlach’s Band furnishing the music.”

The Arbieter Society continued to occupy the building until 1918 when it was sold to the Winn Cigar Factory. The group then continued to hold their meetings at the Salt City Hall (319 River Street) until a new generation came to pass and membership numbers decreased.

In September of 1935, the society held its last meeting on its 70th anniversary. An article published in the Manistee News Advocate provided a detailed article on the society’s final meeting. Portions of the original article follow:

“It was a venerable gathering of 19 of Manistee’s long-time residents who met at the Salt City Hall Sunday afternoon for the last meeting of the city’s oldest society, the Arbeiter Unterstuetzungs Verein, more commonly known as the German Society. The day marking the 70th anniversary has been chosen to close officially the society’s books.

“Presiding over the last meeting was the 92-year old president, Albert Ursum, now a resident of Ludington who has been a member since the club joined the state organization on Jan. 1, 1888.

“Over their steins of beer, the grey-haired men reminisced over those early days. Some recalled the days when, led by their officers on horseback and by Gerlach’s gay 20-piece band they marched out to the Northside Park to picnic on Sunday afternoons. Others recalled the Saturday night dances at their building, the German Hall, on Clay Street. Others, the large number who could turn out for a parade or any civic activity. Others recalled the prominent men who had been members but have long since passed on.”

“The state organization of which they had been a member since the reorganization in Jan. 1888 went into receivership four years ago. The local organization however, kept going on alone here and paid small death benefits until it became advisable to continue. The money left in the treasury was split among the 28 members each getting about $80.

“Among the prominent men who were members Justice August Greve recalled the following: Michael Engelmann, Charles Reitz, Joseph Baur, Dan Hornkohl, Ernest Hornkohl, August Pfeiffer, Otto Rosenfeld, Charles Daniels, Henry Rademaker, August Pirsig, Henry Kremple, Joseph Radke, Henry Brugman, C.J. Stege, Frank Firzlaff, Louis E. Morris, William Schmeiling, Adolph Lutz, Constantine Fleissner, Cornelius Waal, Ewald Andre, Joseph Saile, Christ Seeley, William Kuehl, Antone Schlief, Ernest Mamrow, Edward Damrow, Edward Papenguth, Charles Bigge, Sr., Louis Bigge, William Jaitner, Carl Clason, Carl Gerlach, Julius Trantow, Will, Charles, John, and Gust Dummer.”

While still referenced as Arbeiter Hall in the local city directories through 1936, the building was later used as a warehouse for the Manistee Iron Works and was subsequently purchased by Manistee resident, Gabriel Polcyn. In 1954, the building that was once the site of so much activity was razed; thus erasing the structure that was home to Manistee’s oldest social organization.

The Museum’s latest holiday exhibit, “A Lilliputian Christmas”, which honors the area’s German Heritage with decorations, dollhouses, miniatures, toys, and trains, will be on display until Dec. 30. For more information, including days and hours of operation, please contact the Museum at (231) 723-5531.

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