Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Anti-German hysteria and Herman Steinbach

The United States entered World War I with a formal declaration against Germany on April 6, 1917 --- a century ago. In Chariton, someone --- or a group of "someones" --- almost immediately accelerated a whispering campaign that targeted German-American Herman Steinbach, questioning the patriotism of a man who was by then one of the city's most prominent merchants and causing him considerable grief.

Steinbach had fled Germany during the early 1880s and worked hard to succeed in his adopted homeland. Born during 1864, he had learned the butcher trade in his native village, Honnef, and upon arrival in Lucas County during 1884 had found employment in the Yengel meat market. Five years later, he opened his own meat market and by 1917 was well established in his own substantial building on the north side of Chariton's square --- now occupied by the Edward D. Jones financial services office.

He had married Anna Maria Metz during 1895 at St. Joseph's Church, Bauer, just over the line in Marion County and at the heart of what then was one of the largest German-American communities in the region. That's their wedding photo, above. By 1917, the Steinbachs had nine children and were among the pillars of Chariton's Sacred Heart Church. What could possibly go wrong?


The Steinbachs, however, were far from alone as a wave of anti-German paranoia spread across the United States as war neared and following that long-ago declaration. Iowa was especially hard hit because so many of its most productive citizens were of German descent.

There were other whispering campaigns, in some areas of the state yellow paint was splashed on the homes and barns of those born in Germany or of German descent, extra-legal courts were convened in some communities to "try" those accused of disloyalty and coercive systems to force demonstrations of "Americanism" through the purchase of war bonds were instituted as the war progressed. Up in Kossuth County, during 1918, residents of the largely German village of Germania thought it wise to change that name to Lakota.

On May 23, 1918, Iowa Gov. William L. Harding issued a proclamation banning the use of all languages other than English across the state --- including churches. This proclamation affected many of Iowa's ethnic minorities, including Norwegians, Swedes, Danes and Bohemians as well as Germans. The governor claimed that he had personal knowledge that pro-German propaganda and plots against the federal government were being spread across Iowa through the use of all foreign languages, not just German.


Back in Chariton, the campaign against Herman Steinbach had reached a point less than a week after declaration of war that Herald-Patriot editor William D. Junkin decided to publish a front-page story headlined "No Disloyalty Here" on the front page of his April 12, 1917, edition, hoping to defuse the situation. Here's the text:

Rumors of disloyalty on the part of a Chariton citizen have been persistently circulated, rumors which have done a great injustice to the man at whom they have been pointed. We refer to Herman Steinbach and the wholly false stories which have been told regarding his attitude in the present controversy between this government and that of Germany. It has been told of Mr. Steinbach that he flaunted the flag of Germany in his home and place of business, that he had instructed his children to refuse to salute the stars and stripes, that he threatened to shoot any man who dared criticize his actions, that he had a fight with another citizen who formerly lived in Germany, and that his market had been closed.

These and other similar stories were circulated on the streets for the last few weeks and they never grew less in the telling, while those who believed them numbered many of our most cautious citizens.

The Herald-Patriot editor called at the market of Mr. Steinbach Saturday to talk these rumors over with him and to learn some facts which would have the stamp of authority. We found Mr. Steinbach incredulous regarding the rumors, and unwilling to believe that they could have been taken seriously by Chariton people.

When we assured him that they were taken seriously, Mr. Steinbach said to The Herald-Patriot man that he never had had a Germany flag in his possession since coming to Chariton, that he hadn't met the man it was alleged he had trouble with in many weeks, that a threat of any kind against an American citizen was furthest from his thoughts; in fact there was absolutely not a seintilla of truth in the statements. American flags graced the room in which the conversation occurred and there was nothing in the words or actions of Mr. Steinbach to indicate aught else but a good, loyal American citizen, ready to do his "bit" for the country which had given him aslyum when he fled from Germany in 1884 at the age of nineteen years to escape the very military rule which has involved Germany in a world-wide war.

He was drafted into the German ranks in 1881 but deserted and escaped through Belgium to the coast and thence came to the United States. Here he has prospered and has signified a willingness that his son, Albert, a young man of eighteen, shall enlist in the service of the United States, the young man appearing here before the navy officials who were here last week seeking recruits.

Naturalized Germans and those of German descent are going to have a hard time during the war between this country and Germany. Don't make it harder for them by doubting their loyalty, without cause. In the past they have been among our best citizens and we don't believe there is a disloyal one in Lucas county....


I'm guessing that Junkin's front-page story helped to defuse the 1917 campaign against Herman Steinbach, although those of us who live in small towns know how hard it is to halt whispering campaigns once they've begun.

Whatever the case, the Steinbachs remained open for business for another year, until late September of 1918 when The Herald-Patriot published this front-page announcement in its edition of Sept. 26:

The Steinbach meat market was closed Friday and will remain closed indefinitely. War has interfered so seriously with this business that it was deemed advisable to close it up for a time, though the fixtures, tools and equipment will be left in the room just as they were. George Steinbach goes to camp in the next contingent and Albert Steinbach expects to be called among the first of the new registrants, leaving the elder Steinbach without sufficient help to operate the business. He will devote his time to stock buying and look after other interests until matters are adjusted so that he may again engage in his business of selling meat.


As it turned out, World War I ended two months later --- before the Steinbach boys saw active duty.

But Herman never did return to his business on the square. He and his sons developed a custom slaughtering operation that served other meat markets and individual customers and turned their attention to farming.

Son George re-opened the meat market during 1922 and operated it until 1935, when the nationwide depression combined with the closing of Lucas County coal mines caused a dreadful economic slump in the region.

In 1936, George reopened as the Steinbach Meat Co., developing a modern locker plant in a building on North Main Street that originally had housed part of the Schreiber Carriage Manufacturing plant. Steinbach Lockers, operated by George and his sons, closed its doors for the final time on Sept. 1, 1986, after 50 years.

Herman Steinbach died on May 9, 1951, at the age of 86, and is buried in Chariton's Calvary Cemetery with his wife and other family members.

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