Exercising the Mind, Body, and Spirit

21, September 2017

In 1848 revolutions demanding national unity, democracy, and freedom from censorship engulfed the German Confederation (a collection of 39 loosely linked states that eventually birthed modern Germany). The revolutions failed, and thousands of working-class and intellectual Germans fled to the United States. New German faces arrived on the St. Louis riverfront daily as a result. Most had little with them except the desire to carry on a familiar social tradition, one that became a cornerstone of German St. Louis.

Sepia-toned photograph of a ladies' bar drill class at the South St. Louis Turnverein, ca. 1910A ladies' bar drill class at the South St. Louis Turnverein, ca. 1910. Although the society closed in 1940, its building still stands today and has been converted to apartments. Missouri History Museum.

Turnverein (gymnastic societies) were equal parts social, political, and fitness clubs, meant to build excellence of both mind and body as a collective group. The idea was invented in 1811 by Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, who opened the first turnverein in Berlin while that city was part of Napoleon’s French Empire. Jahn had hoped communal exercise would inspire pride and cultural identity in the German working classes, making the turnverein a guardian of German culture, heritage, and language. Decades later, Germans arriving in St. Louis used the turnverein to do the same in America.

Turnverein Societies in St. Louis

A small group of German men organized the St. Louis Turnverein in 1850 and built their Central Turnhalle on 10th Street, between Walnut and Market. The founders—men who were politically aggressive, fiercely liberal, and despised by anti-immigrant “nativists”—weren’t just looking for a place to lift weights. At times the Turnhalle was literally a fortress, like during the Civil War, when the St. Louis Turnverein temporarily transformed into a Union volunteer militia. The society’s men camped and trained in the Turnhalle, practicing bayonet and fencing drills under Union captain Constantin Blandowski, who had the misfortune of being the first Union army officer killed in the Civil War.

Black-and-white photo of the original St. Louis Turnverein hallThe original St. Louis Turnverein hall at 10th and Market Streets, built in 1850. Missouri History Museum.

As more turnvereins appeared around St. Louis and German culture became more accepted, the movement gradually lost political intensity and became more like a social club. These new turnvereins emphasized a lifestyle of festivals, philanthropy, and education—all of which was washed down with ample lager beer and a healthy dose of gemütlichkeit (a German expression meaning roughly “cozy, cheerful gathering”). Their progressive ideas about exercise had big effects around the city: In 1891 six turnverein members worked for a year without pay to introduce daily exercises in St. Louis public schools.

By 1909 the St. Louis region boasted 18 turnverein societies collectively known as the St. Louis Turnbezirk. Turnverein popularity was at its height but soon began a rapid decline. Older, central societies dwindled away as German communities dissipated into the city’s farther reaches. Coupled with World War I’s anti-German attitudes and Prohibition’s disastrous effects on German social institutions, turnverein life was badly damaged. By 1940 the St. Louis Turnverein—the forerunner of other local societies—had closed forever. The city’s turnvereins seemed doomed to exist entirely in memory, but one managed to survive.

The Last St. Louis Turnverein

Black-and-white photo of the second Concordia Turnverein hallConcordia Turnverein's second hall at 1301 Arsenal Street. It was demolished in 1962 to make room for Interstate 55. Missouri History Museum.

The Concordia Turnverein was founded at 13th and Utah Streets in 1874 for Germans living around “extreme south St. Louis.” In its fledgling years, Concordia was controversial for providing some of the first classes and groups for women. (Even though turnverein societies praised social reform, until the turn of the century, women played a diminished role in them.) The growing, brewery-dotted, German-populated neighborhood produced huge turnout, and by 1900 the turnverein was among the city’s largest, with well over 1,000 members.

Under gymnastic instructor Karl Heckrich, an elite team of Concordia athletes took part in the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis. Among them was George Eyser, who competed with a prosthetic leg and won six medals, including golds in the parallel bars, horse vault, and 25-foot rope climb.

Sepia-toned photograph of the 1908 Concordia Turnverein athletic teamThe 1908 Concordia Turnverein athletic team. Many of these men competed under Coach Karl Heckrich (left) in the 1904 Olympics, including gold medalist George Eyser (center). Missouri History Museum.

The society remained stable past World War II, managing high membership while many other area turnvereins permanently shut their doors. As the Interstate Highway System tore across the old neighborhood fabric of St. Louis in the 1950s and 1960s, Concordia’s second turnverein hall at 1301 Arsenal Street prepared to meet its fate: removal to clear the way for Interstate 55’s southbound off-ramp. Concordia sold the property to the Missouri Highway Department in 1962 and dedicated its new hall at 6432 Gravois Avenue in 1963. The Concordia Gymnastic Society still operates there today, one of approximately 50 Turner societies still active in the United States.

—Andrew Wanko, Public Historian

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