The standard story we tell visitors to German Village is that the South End was a wonderful and beautiful place to live at the turn of the 20th century, but then it faced a pretty quick decline due to World War I, Prohibition and the Great Depression. We know it's true and it is an important part of our past, but almost a century later, it is difficult to imagine and appreciate just how tough times were.
The standard story we tell visitors to German Village is that the South End was a wonderful and beautiful place to live at the turn of the 20th century, but then it faced a pretty quick decline due to World War I, Prohibition and the Great Depression. We know it’s true and it is an important part of our past, but almost a century later, it is difficult to imagine and appreciate just how tough times were.
I recently received genealogical information from an elderly woman whose family lived in and around German Village in the 1920s and 1930s, and her firsthand account of life during that time is a primary source that I’d never be able to successfully share without doing so word for word. So, here goes:
“As the (Great) Depression continued, my parents eventually reached a point when they were unable to meet the payments on their Gilbert Street home. They asked family for a loan, but were refused É the bank foreclosed the mortgage, and the day the family was being evicted, our possessions were carried out of the house onto the street.
“One of my father’s friends knew of the family’s plight and offered them a house on Stimmel Street. Another friend was the local ‘junk man’ who owned a horse and wagon; he helped us load our belongings on the wagon and move them to the Stimmel Street house. This was a very small brick house, just off High Street near Sycamore. It had been a double at one time and then converted to a single dwelling.
“The next house my father found to rent was on Mohawk Street just south of Livingston Avenue. There was no furnace, only a pot-bellied stove. The upstairs heat came through iron-grilled floor registers.
“It was not a very nice house, and the plaster was always falling off the walls. The entire dining room ceiling crumbled and fell while we lived there. The nicest thing we remember was the Jaeger Bakery across the street. We bought day-old rolls and rye bread from them and they often gave us baked goods free of charge.”
The author was, at this point, not yet a teenager. Shortly after moving to the Mohawk Street home, the family moved again to a house on Third Street near St. Mary Catholic Church. She had one older and two younger siblings, her father found work as a “jack of all trades” when he could and her mother ran their home with four young children under toe. They spoke German at home and weren’t loved by everyone for it. They took in boarders to make ends meet and made just about everything they ate.
But it wasn’t all bad. They were proud of their Saxon and German heritage and belonged to the “Central Alliance of Transylvanian Saxons in America” social club that also provided life insurance to members. They attended dances and festivals with their family, neighbors and friends.
Much like German Village today, neighbors shared what they could. Those with fruit trees traded fruit with those who grew vegetables, and so on. Many families made their own wine, bread and noodles, and many made butchering an event.
In the end, their stories share wonderful details of daily living in our neighborhood, telling where businesses were, describing the local schools were like and revealing the social structure of the German neighborhood.
This family was the typical working-class family who settled our neighborhood, the people we are so proud of today.
Nearly 100 years ago, German Village was not quite as polished, not quite as refined, as it is today. But it was a place that solid, working, genuine people called home, and that is a legacy that continues today. We are a neighborhood that looks out for each other, that celebrates and mourns together, that looks toward a bright future.
And it seems we always have been, even in some of our toughest times.
Jody Graichen is director of historic preservation programs for the German Village Society.