Questions about Cleveland
My family has these rare old letters, dating as far back as 1841, written by Cleveland blacksmiths and wagon-makers. I used them as a jumping off point. The letters tell of infant deaths, of starting a wagon business, of shops burning and a wagon-maker losing his leg. They were discovered a few years ago in an attic in Germany. We couldn’t read them at first – they were in Old German Script (a precursor to Suetterlin). But my German cousin Angela Weber helped me. There were two brothers in the mid-nineteenth century. One immigrated to America – I’m descended from him, while the older brother remained in the Palatinate – my cousin is descended from him. Since then six or seven generations have passed, so translating the old letters was like a game of clue– who were these people? How were they related to us? Just from the voices in the letters, I could hear a story emerging.
It is. I was even able to look up these blacksmiths and wagon-makers in old Cleveland city directories. I found them in census records, in some cases I found them on their immigrant ship manifests. Genealogists locate ancestors in records all the time, but the letters offered so much more — a window into the German immigrant experience in Cleveland. These men were salt-of-the-earth types who worked hard, but they had dreams too – they were excited about Lincoln and abolition and freedom from oppressive European monarchies. They faced so much change. For the blacksmiths and wagon-makers, the era was a “last stand” for their way of life.
Obviously, blacksmiths aren’t extinct, they’re doing very cool stuff today, there’s even a renaissance going on. These days, though, it’s about art – gates and sculpture and ornamental decorations. The nineteenth century way of life has ceased to exist. Blacksmiths used to be the lifeblood of human society – if you didn’t have a blacksmith to turn to for farming tools and cooking pots, to repair the wheel on your wagon or make chain and knives, you were in trouble. It was an issue of survival. The accelerating machine age in the nineteenth century changed all that – for blacksmiths, and all the artisan crafts — woodworkers and tailors and shoemakers, and so on. By the early twentieth century the artisan crafts, and its apprenticeship system, had become obsolete.
Cleveland’s early population, just after the canals were built, was one-third English, one-third Irish, and one-third German. The Last of the Blacksmiths begins before the Civil War, when the wealthiest Clevelanders lived not on Euclid Avenue, but on Prospect Avenue in Greek Revival-style mansions. For the most part, these were the English, the Connecticut Yankees.
The Last of the Blacksmiths focuses on the German immigrant population. They were especially prominent in ship-building and wagon-making. They began arriving in significant numbers during the building of the canal system in the 1820s and 1830s. These Germans were conservative farmers looking for a fresh start. After 1848 and the failed revolution for democracy in Europe, a new class of German immigrant arrived, political exiles—48ers they were nicknamed –lawyers and teachers and journalists. They had rebelled against the monarchies and had to flee when their demands for a constitutional government failed. These men were passionate about Thomas Paine, about democracy and freedom and anti-slavery. A number of them settled in Cleveland. They founded newspapers and singing and physical fitness societies and their own German schools and were especially enthusiastic about the new Republican Party and Abraham Lincoln. But a lot of this German influence seems to have been lost – what happened in the twentieth century brought about strong anti-German sentiment.
Immigration was a huge political issue back then just like it is today—in those days it was mainly directed against the Germans and the Irish. In his day, Benjamin Franklin complained that it seemed to him the national language might become German, what with so many German speakers coming to the colonies. To counter that trend, English-speakers started a “Nativist” movement – the “Nativists” being Western Europeans who were already naturalized citizens. They had a motto: “America for the Americans.” The Nativists tried to enact legislation making it difficult for new arrivals to become citizens, by not allowing immigrants to vote or hold office for 21 years, that kind of thing.
In addition, there were many “Puritan” English in those days who believed strongly in temperance, who didn’t appreciate the German practice of beer and wine drinking, especially on Sundays. For the Germans, this was not only a lifestyle choice. Beer making and wine imports were central to their economy. So there were hard feelings on both sides.
Cleveland’s streets were all numbered starting in 1906, so I couldn’t find Seneca Street and Willson Road for instance. At the map room in the Cleveland Public Library I was able to find old addresses mentioned in the letters. It turned out Seneca Street — where Michael Harm did his blacksmith apprenticeship — is present-day W. 3rd Street – it runs right through the heart of downtown, a block away from Public Square. Champlain Street, where Harm’s first carriage business stood, is where Cleveland’s signature Terminal Tower now stands.
I also couldn’t find any mention of my family in the 19th century Cleveland newspapers. I was puzzled by this until I came across my great-great grandmother’s scrap book, which included newspaper articles written in German. Then I realized the stories about my German side of the family would be in the German newspapers. This phenomena must continue today – for instance, in my hometown of Seattle there’s a Korean language newspaper and a Chinese language newspaper and so on – English-speakers don’t really follow or report on the news of those communities.
It seems as if the 20th century – with Germany’s role in the World Wars — effectively buried much of the German immigrant story of the nineteenth century. The whole country had a negative reaction to Germans starting in WWI. In some places, it became unlawful to speak German in public. In some instances my ancestors even changed their names to sound less German. No doubt they got rid of many things related to their German heritage. Writing the book, I realized German immigrants brought quite positive influences to the U.S. in the 19th century – better farming methods, a passion for music and opera, and they played a significant role in the election of Abraham Lincoln. It’s a privilege to unbury some of that more romantic, visionary past.