As it were
Where they lived: The Germans
Like most American cities, Columbus has been a meeting place for a wide variety of people of various races, religions, ethnicities and nationalities. Nevertheless, for much of its history the population of Columbus mostly has consisted of native born residents who moved to the city from nearby rural areas. Newcomers from foreign countries have made up very small minorities in the city.
But there have been some exceptions to that rule -- most notably the Germans.
In the early 1830s, the rather isolated frontier capital city of Ohio was linked to a waiting world through the arrival of the National Road and the Ohio Canal. These two important forms of transportation permitted immense quantities of Ohio produce and manufactured goods to reach markets in the East and South. They also provided a means for recently arrived immigrants to easily and inexpensively come to the Midwest. And come they did.
Western Europe was a region in turmoil for much of the early to mid-1800s. The American and French Revolutions had been followed by the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte who challenged the authority of most of the ruling monarchs of Europe. Following Napoleon's fall, revolutionary movements continued to arise from time to time. But they were usually quickly and forcefully suppressed. Political unrest combined with economic hardship encouraged many Europeans to look to the promise of a new life in America.
Many of the new arrivals came from what we today call Germany but what at the time was a series of principalities, kingdoms and cities that shared a language and culture but little else.
When German immigrants arrived in America, they arrived at any of several major ports of entry. Some of the new arrivals stayed in cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia or New York. But many more were attracted by the promise of inexpensive land and economic opportunity in places like Ohio. And many of the new arrivals came to Columbus.
They came to Columbus partly because there were German families already living here. Johann Christian Heyl was one of the earliest settlers of the new town and had opened a bakery and inn soon after his arrival. Other people of German background were here as well. But they were few in number until transportation methods improved.
As the number of German settlers increased, a small German community began to emerge on both sides of High Street just to the south of the large Native American mound that gave Mound Street its name and on both sides of the ravine that carried the stream called Peters Run east to west, where Interstate 70 is today.
There were several reasons why the German immigrants settled there. Even though that area was close to town, the price of land was very inexpensive. The original southern city limit of Columbus was Livingston Avenue. Land outside the capital city was considerably cheaper than land in town.
And the land was available. A veteran of the American Revolution named John McGowan had settled on more than 300 acres of land immediately south of the original platted town of Columbus as early as 1802. An enterprising sort, McGowan set up a toll booth on High Street which also happened to be the road to Chillicothe.
Christian Heyl later remembered, "When we came to South Columbus at McGowan's Run the road was fenced and old Mr. McGowan refused to let me go through his gates. Then I promised to make him a present of some good old whisky and the gates were at once opened."
Apparently John McGowan developed a liking for German neighbors since he began selling new town lots to new arrivals at very low prices. The German immigrants liked the neighborhood and by the 1840s, the community began to be called die Sud Ende or "the South End."
The German neighborhood continued to expand. By the end of the American Civil War, the German business district extended as far north as Rich Street in downtown Columbus and continued south of Livingston on High Street for several blocks as well. A number of German companies located on or near the Ohio Canal and nearby railroad tracks. German enterprises made everything from beer to barrels and carriages to violins.
The German residential district grew and reached to Parsons Avenue on the east and as far south as the new industrial district that was emerging on the far south end. It encompassed a large uncut tract of forest called Stewart's Grove which soon became an informal park and picnic grounds for the German community. Eventually it would become Schiller Park.
At its height, the German community was a world of its own with its own schools, churches, newspapers and social clubs. And like many ethnic communities, the core of the community grew smaller and smaller with each succeeding generation. Today German Village is a small but splendid reminder of that larger German community that called Columbus home.
Offering a current taste of the community, the 54th Annual German Village Haus and Garden Tour will take place June 30. Visit germanvillage.com for more information.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As it were column for ThisWeek News.