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German Footprints on the

 Crossroads of America

  Throughout Indiana there are footprints of thousands of Germans who left their homeland 100 to 150 years ago to build a new life for their families in America.  Thousands came to Indiana and to its capitol, Indianapolis, shaping our communities and leaving their indelible heritage markings.  One community abounding with signs of that German heritage is the Southside of Indianapolis.  From the 1850s to 1890s many German people, young and old, male and female, of all backgrounds, traveled the National Road from the east coast to Indianapolis or made their way by the few other routes available.  Due to the designation of the Southside as a railroad hub it was an area that played a key role in the development of the city during this period, attracting our ancestors to the economic opportunities.  By 1855 fifteen railroad lines ran from Union Station, one of the first stations in the country to have tracks shared by competing lines.  200 passenger trains a day passed through the station by the turn of the century.  Indianapolis had become the “Crossroads of America.”

 The Southside became a mix of manufacturing, farming, businesses and residences.  Germans who came during this major growth period found some early countrymen already in the area.  Those early settlers were vegetable growers who came to the south side community when it was still forest were attracted by the available fertile land near White River.  The greenhouses of some of those early growers are still producing today.

As the opportunities of the transportation center grew, entrepreneurs and craftsmen flocked to the area.  In the Wholesale District located adjacent to this rapidly growing Midwest railroad hub, businessmen hired German architects and builders to erect what became some of the city’s landmark buildings.   The commercial district called Fountain Square developed to the southeast composed of many German-owned small businesses, such as bakers, shoemakers and grocers.  Though the city’s landscape has changed, Fountain Square has been functioning continually as a commercial district since the 1870s.  On the city’s southwest side manufacturers, mills, furniture companies, stockyards and other businesses generated the employment for many German laborers. While others recognizing the need of these laborers, built boarding houses in the southwest area.  Cottage homes were interspersed with the residences of the more affluent in Fountain Square and in the adjacent Fletcher Place district. By 1870 almost 50% of the total foreign-born inhabitants of Indianapolis were German and 58% lived south of Washington Street.

The German southsiders influenced many developmental aspects of Indianapolis.  They built breweries, furniture and dry goods stores, stone works and stockyards.  Southside businessmen such as Diedrich Bohlen, Jacob Woessner, Charles Schmidt and Samuel Rauh held positions of leadership in the city.  In the spirit of song and dance that permeated their lives, Germans instilled their love for music in the inhabitants of the city. The  area’s Von Tilzer Brothers wrote such standards as “Take Me Out To The Ball Game.” Their strong commitment to education, including vocational training is evidenced in the city’s current school system.  The Southside’s Emmerich Manual High School when established in 1891 through the influence of German city leaders was the only high school in the country that taught manual training along with academic subjects.  

These new Americans were as varied in their religious and political views as they were in their economic and educational backgrounds. The Lutherans and Catholics were the earliest to establish German parishes, followed by many other congregations.  Political viewpoints varied and were expressed openly in the several German language papers within the community.   However, a universal commitment among Germans was to preservation of their culture and traditions.  One of those customs was that of the club life, the Turnverein. It was and is a means of cultural celebration.  The Southside Turners participated wholeheartedly in supporting their own Turnverein, which sponsored gymnastics events, musical festivals, parades and a beer garden at the club on Prospect Street.  The Southside Turners organization and the German American Klub are still preserving the traditions within the families of the area.

Southside Indianapolis German footprints were integral in the paving of what is the Crossroads of America.  The next time your path leads you to downtown Indianapolis, perhaps you might find it interesting to take your own footsteps into the Southside community.  The merchants and residents of the area will welcome you to explore their community.  There’s more to learn and enjoy.

(Nancy Hurley, August 16, 2003)