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Two Centuries of German's in Lowell

Two Centuries of Germans in Lowell

Germans and the New World
German immigration to North America marked its 300th year in 1983, although Germans played a role in American history from the "discovery" of the New World.  In 1507, German cartographer Martin Waldseemueller christened this continent America, in the mistaken belief that it had been discovered by Amerigo Vespucci.  German settlers helped found Jamestown, Virginia in 1601.  Peter Minuit, from Wesel, Germany, purchased Manhattan Island from the Algonquin Indians on behalf of the Dutch West India Company in 1626, and later became the first governor of New Amsterdam.  The first all German settlement was Germantown, today a section of Philadelphia.  It was founded by thirteen Mennonite families who arrived from Krefeld, Germany on October 6,1683 in search of religious freedom.

     Many prominent names come from the ranks of German immigrants.  Baron von Steuben, born in Magdeburg in 1703, and originally a Prussian officer, served as Major General during the War of Independence and trained George Washington's troops.  He also devised a plan for a military academy that led to the founding of West Point in 1802.  Carl Schurz, born in Librar, near Cologne in 1829, supported the Union cause in the Civil War.  He was a student when he joined the German revolutionary movement of 1848.  The uprising was unsuccessful and Schurz, compelled by dreams of democracy, emigrated to America.  He later became Ambassador to Spain and ended his career as U. S. Secretary of the Interior.  The Brooklyn Bridge was built by Johann Augustus Roebling who was born in Muehlhausen, Thuringia, in 1806.  The great majority of German immigrants however, came from the lower and middle classes.  In general, they represented farmers, merchants and artisans who were seeking to escape an overpopulated and overregulated Europe and came to America for religious, political and economic reasons.

Crossing the Atlantic
The indentured system offered free passage to America in exchange for several years of labor.  Persons signed a contract of indenture that obligated them to three to six years of service.  Immigrants were also required to pay for relatives who died during the passage, if death occurred during the second half of the voyage.  Many did not survive the trip.  People were crowded under primitive conditions between decks on cargo ships and had to provide their own food and medical care on a voyage that could take up to one hundred days.  In spite of the difficult journey and restrictions on emigration imposed by the German authorities, the stream of immigrants continued in hopes for a better life for themselves and their children.


Title page of Useful Travel for America, animmigrant guidebook by Hans Rau, (Ulm, Germany; 1870)
The Hirsch Family 
In this exhibit, Two Centuries of Germans in Lowell, we follow the life of a German family who came to America in the early nineteenth century.  glassblowers originally from Bohemia, the Hirsches moved around quite a bit before coming to Brunswick in Northern Germany.  This is documented by passports and letters of recommendation.  Shortly after 1810, the family embarked on a ship from Bremen to Baltimore. Eventually, the Hirsches settled in Massachusetts where they were able to find employment in the glassworks at Middlesex Village in East Chelmsford.  There they found themselves in the company of quite a few fellow Germans.  In 1824 they built a house in Lowell which remained in the family until 1971.  To illustrate the early period of German immigration in Lowell, this exhibit features glass blown by Hirsch family members more than 150 years ago.

Germans in the late Nineteenth Century
Between the end of the glassworks era in Lowell in the 1840s and 1890, there was little German immigration into the city, although considerable numbers of Germans continued to settle in other parts of the country.  According to 1880 census figures there were less than one hundred Germans living in Lowell, an industrial city with a population of some 60,000 at that time.  Some of these Germans were employed in the cotton and woolen mills as weavers, wool cleaners, and dyers, while others worked at different trades.  One notable immigrant, Austrian-born August Fels, became an agent for the Merrimack Woolen Mill in Dracut in 1877.  In the 1880s he succeeded John Ames as president of the Lowell and Dracut Street Railway Company, the first public transportation system in the city of Lowell.

      In contrast, the city of Lawrence had a total population of 39,000 in 1880 of which about 1,100 were Germans.  Why this difference?  Around 1850 German weavers from Saxony, Silesia and Bavaria, having escaped an economic crisis in their homeland, found work in the textile mills of Lawrence.  More Germans seemed to have been attracted to Lawrence where their culture flourished through such support networks as clubs, churches, and the German school.  This was not the case in Lowell, where Germans were not connected to a single, large employer like the textile mills.  Later, however, the Harvard Brewery would become the common denominator for a more cohesive group of German immigrants.

     By the end of the nineteenth century, the number of German and other immigrants from Europe increased greatly.  Steamships had replaced sailing ships and trans-Atlantic passage was reduced to 17 days or less.  Special passenger ships were built, and the railroad speeded up land transportation.

The Harvard Brewing Company 1898-1956
In 1894, the Consumer's Brewing Company was founded in Lowell and in 1898, this brewery changed its name to the Harvard Brewing Company.  The plant was the largest of its kind in the New England States.  It attracted many German brewery workers and their families, until by 1910, about 200 Germans were living in Lowell.  Most of these brewery workers settled around Plain Street where the brewery was located.  In 1913 they built their own German Hall, a place where the German-American Club, the German Ladies' Society, the members of the United Brewery Workers' Union, and the Workmen's Sick and Benefit Society could meet.  This hall was the center of the German neighborhood, where the German immigrants and their families often spent weekends socializing.  It helped relieve homesickness, but it was also a center for activities and celebrations.

 During prohibition many of the German brewery workers were laid off, since the Harvard Brewing Company was only permitted to produce soft drinks and "near beer."  When prohibition was repealed in 1933 and the company was permitted to produce beer again, some of the former workers returned.  Others, however, had taken new jobs or had left Lowell.  By then, the German clubs no longer existed but many of the former brewery workers still remained in contact with one another.

     The Harvard Brewery prospered and was one of the major tax payers of the city of Lowell.  It also paid its employees well and they in turn, were loyal to the company.  Many first and second generation Germans worked there, as well as other immigrant groups.  Harvard beer and ale were well known and valued throughout New England.  During World War II one of the employees was accused of spying for the Germans, and since Germans were the major stock holders at that time, the government enforced the Alien Property Custodial Act and took over the brewery.  In the mid-1950s the Harvard Brewery declined and in 1956, was sold to a New York concern.  Today only two buildings of the former Harvard Brewing Company remain, the rest having fallen victim to fire and urban renewal.


Artistic rendering of the Harvard Brewing
Company (courtesy of Gerald H. Roth).

The German Cultural Club
The German Cultural Club of the International Institute of Lowell reflects the ebb and flow of German immigration to the Greater Lowell area, as have its predecessor clubs.  It was founded after World War II, when so many German-born women moved here as the wives of American servicemen.  In 1960, Lydia Mattei, now Executive Director of the International Institute, had the idea to form a German Cultural Club and became its advisor.  Fifty-five members signed up the first year.  The club became successful early on.  According to a Lowell Sun article in November, 1960, club members, among other performers from fourteen nations, entertained some 2500 guests at a folk festival at Lowell's Memorial Auditorium.

The German Cultural Club taking part in the Lowell Folk Festival, 1992.  (Photo by Uve H.W. Lammers).

One of the most influential early members was the late Ruth Scoggins, who twice served as club president.  She helped define the goals of this organization: to uphold and pass on the German cultural heritage, and to build bridges of friendship and understanding with our fellow Americans.

     In 1990, Germany was reunited.  The country's economic prospects are good again and the influx of German immigrants is small.  Now, 32 years later, the club has fifteen members and is actively seeking newcomers.  The German Cultural Club continues to be community oriented.  The annual bakery booth at the Lowell Folk Festival raises proceeds for worthy causes.  This year two members of the German Cultural Club researched and presented the exhibition Two Centuries of Germans in Lowell at the Patrick J. Mogan Cultural Center, while other members contributed by hosting the exhibit opening.

Peter Alexis
Richard Castrios
Richard C. Chase
Eartha Dengler
Ella Donohoe
Ellen Donohoe
Jane Drury
Frank J. Heidenrich
Karl Heidentich
Walter V Hickey
Marianne & Robert Innis
Gretchen Sanders Joy
Richard Lahue
Jens U. Lammers
Uve H. W Lammers
Guy R. Lefebvre
Brenda M. McDermott
Martha Mayo
Juliet Mofford
Norma Murphy
Martha Norkunas
Donald Pattershall
Gerald H. Roth
Michael Roth
Hans Schliebus
Margaret Shanahan
Rebecca Warren
Ethel Wilder
Uwe J. Winter

Chelmsford Historical Society
German Cultural Club - International Institute of 
Immigrant City Archives
Lowell Historic Preservation Commission
Lowell Museum Cultural Fund
Lowell National Historical Park
Lowell Office of Cultural Affairs (LOCA)

Exhibit Director for German Glassblowers and
German Cultural Club: Dorit D. Lammers

Photography and video by Uve H. W Lammers

Exhibit Director/ photographer for Harvard Brewing Company: Eva-Maria Chase

Special thanks to the Riverside Players: Bernice Chen,
Natalie Lowell, Renate Winter, and Eva-Maria Chase

glass blown by Hirsch family