The Carpathia Chronicles

Part III: Glory Days

Part three of this series remembers the glory days of the Carpathia Singing Society

during the Roaring Twenties. By Richard W. Gerhardt

 

"Von deutscher Erde sind wir abgeglitten, Auf diese Insel weit im Völkermeer,

Und wo des Schwaben Pflug das Land durchschnitten, Wird deutsch die Erde und er weicht nicht mehr."

Müller-Guttenbrunn

 

Detroit’s East Side German community was in its heyday during the 1920’s. The large German immigrant population supported a multitude of German restaurants, German churches, cultural clubs, and other businesses along Gratiot Avenue. The neighborhoods consisted of mostly two-story wood frame houses, built on narrow lots with small front yards. Yet, they were always kept neat and clean. The German influence is still evident in such names as Heidelberg Street, a residential street not far from Carpathia Hall which became known in the 1990’s as the site of the "Heidelberg Project". The general area around the intersection of Mack Avenue and Gratiot was home to a surprisingly large number of German halls and clubhouses. Among those within walking distance of one another were the Germania Hall, Saxon Heim, Deutsches Haus, Fortschrittsbund, Concordia Hall, and Carpathia to name a few. The German population was large enough that all of these establishments thrived and were able to maintain a large degree of independence from one another.

 

The Carpathia Hall, located at the corner of Elmwood and Preston, just east of Gratiot and west of Vernor, also prospered during this time period. Despite the fact that Carpathia took a second mortgage on their new hall in January, 1922 in order to pay building contractors, the Society’s cash flow remained in the green. Later, the two mortgages were combined into one with a $200 per month interest payment. An inventory of the Societies assets on September 9, 1923, by Franz Hill, put the total value of the Elmwood Hall at $145,442.00. Combined, the two mortgages stood at $105,150.00, and Carpathia’s equity was $40,292.00. Detroit city tax on the hall for 1924 was $1,502.17, with a real estate tax of $20.97.

 

In addition to the usual expenses of mortgage and taxes, it was not long before Carpathia incurred further costs for upkeep and renovation. On June 24, 1923, it was decided that the original 4-lane bowling alley should be renovated and an additional two lanes added. A committee was formed to oversee the work and Brunswick-Balke was retained as the contractor. A year later, the basement was again upgraded; this time, with a new ventilation system. By September, 1923, it was time to purchase a new piano and the Society’s leadership agreed to the terms of $250 down and $25 per month until the total cost of $500 had been paid. The old piano was fixed and sold. A complete set of new kitchenware was purchased for $321.52 on March 8, 1925. At the same time, new silverware, embossed with the name "Carpathia", was purchased at a cost of $158.

 

But, despite all these expenses, Carpathia’s new hall prospered. "Carpathia had three floors and it was always packed!" recalled Ms. Francis Fay, daughter of Carpathia’s second president, Jacob Noll. "There was always something going on there. They had concerts and plays and bowling…" The bowling alley and billiard room was a favorite hangout of men in the German community. It’s where longtime Rheingold President, Frank Bessel, spent many a Sunday afternoon. "They had a billiard table down there, not pool, but real billiards. It was the only one around and I really liked that." recalled Bessel, who had come to Detroit from Pittsburgh in 1928.

 

In fact, beginning in the early 1930’s, Carpathia even hosted weekly Tuesday night wrestling matches. Among some well known wrestlers of the time were Adam Weissmüller, brother of Johnny Weissmüller, an Ostschwabe who became famous in his role as Hollywood’s first Tarzan. "They used to set up the ring in the middle of the main hall," said Barbara Knight, daughter of George Brenner, Carpathia’s first manager. "Weissmüller used to wrestle at the Carpathia quite often until, one time, he hurt his back during a match and never wrestled after that."

 

Another source of income was hall rental and the upstairs dining room was frequently reserved for weddings and private parties. In 1923, the estimated 100 – 200 capacity dining room could be rented for $185, including dinner. Although this fee reserved the room until 1a.m., it was common in those days to celebrate well into the night. For this reason, Carpathia charged $5 for each additional hour the room was used. Even the cloak room was considered fair game for rental and, in 1923, the Society received $400 from Martin Kopler for a one year lease of the cloak room.

 

In addition to the catering business, special attractions, and the numerous concerts and plays sponsored by Carpathia, the Society hosted a number of dances throughout the year, including the spring "Bauernball" and the "Weinlesefest" in the fall. In 1922, members paid a modest entrance fee of 25 cents to these dances, while non-members paid 40 cents. As is still the case in the 1990’s, the Carpathia of the 1920’s hosted a yearly summer picnic. Each year a committee was formed to select and rent a picnic ground until the purchase of Carpathia Park in 1925. The summer picnic of 1922 cleared $330 after expenses. Occasionally, special parties were held exclusively for Carpathia’s members. Among them was the family evening of December, 1923, in which men pay $1, while Ladies got in free. Special invitations were sent out for the Membership Evening held on November 27, 1924. Admission was 50 cents per person and included dinner and beer.

 

Carpathia was also active in supporting the cultural events of other German organizations in the area. Among the clubs Carpathia was most involved with was their old friends at the Fortschrittsbund, the Siebenbürger Sachsen, Landwehr Verein, Bürgerbund, Deutscher Unterstützungsverein, the Washington Verein in Saginaw, and the Wyandott Verein. Carpathia often supported these other organizations through monetary donations and by sending representatives to their functions. For example, Carpathia board meeting minutes from the spring of 1924 indicate the approval of a $50 donation to the Fortschrittsbund for their hall dedication. The Society also participated with it’s flag in the Deutschen Unterstützungsverein’s parade and Fahnenweihe on Aug. 3 of that same year. To support their friends in Saginaw, Carpathia went so far as to host a "Bunter Abend" and Ball on May 24, 1924 to raise money for the Washington Verein’s building fund. Carpathia was also involved in the "Mack Avenue Carnival" of ‘24, which ran a full 10 days from January 22 - 31.

 

A tradition which has fallen out of practice today, is the use of a "golden nail", along with the organizational flag at dedication ceremonies and other, more formal, events. A golden nail with "Carpathia" engraved on it was specially made for the Fahnenweihe of May 30, 1924, and was nailed into the flag of the hosting organization along with nails from other participating groups. A Carpathia golden nail was also used at the Fahnenweihe of the Deutsch-Unterstützungsverein and the Fahnenweihe of the Deutschen U.B., District 612 on September 21. It was customary for Carpathia to donate $25 to the hosting organization at these types of events.

The job of running Carpathia was taken very seriously and this was reflected in the organization’s structure. An 8 member Board of Directors, or Directorium, was at the top of Carpathia’s leadership structure. Unless a special meeting was called, the Directorium met monthly and approved even the smallest of expenses incurred by the Society. The Directorium also heard nominations for new members and was responsible for the hiring of the Society’s employees, as necessary.

 

Separate from the Directorium was another committee that ran the daily operation of the Society. This committee was chaired by Carpathia’s President and included the Vice President, Correspondence and Recording Secretary, assistant Secretary, Insurance Secretary, Finance Secretary, Treasurer, Entertainment Chairman, and Wirtschaftsvorsitzender. These were all nominated by the Directorium one month before the General Meeting, where they were voted on by the membership. This "working board" met frequently, usually every other week, or even weekly to discuss issues pending. In fact, it was not unusual for this committee to meet on holidays, if necessary. For example, meeting minutes indicate, the board met on December 25, 1922. In addition to the two committees, Carpathia’s leadership also consisted of, 6 trustees, and 3 auditors.

 

Because being a Carpathia leader was considered an important position, many of the Society’s officers were paid yearly or even monthly. In 1924, Carpathia’s President received a monthly reimbursement for expenses of $15.00. In addition, the Finance Secretary, assistant Secretary, Correspondence and Recording Secretary., Insurance Secretary and Wirtschaftsvorsitzender, each received $50.00 per year. Despite these incentives, board positions were not always filled at the General meetings and the vacancies were sometimes left in the hands of the Directorium. As is the case today, the Wirtschafts-Chairperson was a particularly difficult position to fill because of the heavy workload and responsibility. Nevertheless, those assuming leadership positions in the Society were expected to take their responsibilities seriously and negligence of duties was considered unacceptable. In two separate instances, board meeting minutes from 1924 indicate that one of the trustees, as well as the Entertainment Chairman, were sent letters relieving them of their duties. At the monthly business meeting of September 14, 1924, all trustees were sent letters reminding them to "live up to their responsibilities".

 

Not only were leadership responsibilities taken seriously, but membership in the Society also carried with it certain expectations. As is true today, prospective members had to be sponsored by a Carpathia member, but all members were required to speak German. As previously mentioned, nominations for membership were brought before the Directorium and a one month review period followed before a new member was accepted. New members received membership cards which had to be shown before entering all Carpathia functions.

 

As a Carpathia member, certain rules of conduct were strictly enforced and misbehavior in the hall was not tolerated. Board meeting minutes from 1923 – 1924 reveal that specific and separate instances of membership misconduct were taken up by the board and, in both cases, membership was revoked. In one case, a Mr. Köhler, who failed to appear in his own defense at the board meeting of March 25, 1923, was publicly accused at the General Meeting and subsequently stricken from the membership list. In April, 1923, a special meeting was held to discuss severe misconduct in the basement Members Room and the following entry was made in the minutes:

 

"This meeting was called to bring order to the member room. Due to improper and uncalled for behavior of several men, it was decided (or resolved) that Mr. Gustav Meyers will stand every Saturday and Sunday by the door, with a list of names in hand, and not let those members into the room. Joe Reis (one of the trouble makers) will be sent a letter requesting his appearance in front of the board at the next meeting."

 

Although the apparent intolerance of misconduct by members and leaders reflected the general attitude of Carpathia’s members during that time period, the strict enforcement was, no doubt, necessitated by the times. The years from 1920 through 1933 were most notably remembered as the Prohibition Era. Although the 18th Amendment banned the manufacture, sale, and consumption of alcohol in the United States, a massive underground bootlegging industry flourished in the Detroit area, providing a variety of alcohol products to the German community. Large amounts of beer were smuggled across the waterways nightly from Canada to secret drop off points like the Dodge mansion, the Grosse Pointe War Memorial, and Mt. Clemens. Carpathia members and guests were prohibited from drinking alcohol in most of the clubhouse but, for 25 cents members could still enjoy a glass of beer in the safety of the basement members room.

 

"They ran a blind pig down there. That’s what it really was," remembers Phil Jaeger with a smile. Phil was a young boy in those days who, along with his brother Nick, set up bowling pins every night in the basement of Carpathia Hall (no automatic lanes in those days). "They used to have a member standing guard at the door to the members room. There was a buzzer he could press in case the police showed up unexpectedly. You had to be a Carpathia member to get in there and that’s where they would drink." One privilege of Carpathia membership was that each member received a key to the members room. The key was required for entrance. Forgetting your key three times meant you would no longer be allowed into the most popular room in the Hall.

 

Meeting minutes from 1924 indicate that Carpathia regularly purchased large quantities of beer from the Tivoly Brewery believed to have operated in Mt. Clemens. A $1,000 discount was offered by the brewery if Carpathia could pay its bill in full. The board approved a mortgage note to cover the cost which was signed by board members including President Jacob Noll, Frank Orth, George Rack, John Ruck, and Joe Bichler. Carpathia was active in its opposition to the Prohibition law and on February 10, 1924, established a committee to work with the "Liberty Bell" toward the repeal of the 18th amendment,

 

Another benefit of being a Carpathia member in those days was the availability of health insurance through the Society. Mr. Franz Orth was Carpathia’s first Insurance Secretary, well before the construction of the Elmwood Hall. Orth built the insurance operation into a substantial enterprise within the Society. In fact, in 1924, enough money was in the insurance coffers to provide the Society with a temporary loan.

 

Two types of insurance were known to be available to Carpathia members: health insurance and death insurance. In 1924, health insurance premiums were raised from $6 per month to $8.50. Under the policy, ailing members were first required to be examined by the Society’s doctor. Based on the doctor’s prognosis, the Insurance Secretary presented the claim for benefits to the Directorium who gave final approval of the claim. Premiums for death insurance ran $1.50 in 1924 and were also subject to approval by the Directorium. In early 1924, death benefits were increased from $300 to $500, then raised to $700 in December.

 

Carpathia prospered both culturally and economically throughout the 1920’s and the 1930’s. Looking back over the years at incomplete images formed by old meeting minutes and the faded memories of others, it is easy to imagine an ideal world of German culture and success. Doubtless, this is an incomplete picture. Club life presented the same difficulties to members and leaders as it does today. Yet, in those days, there must have been an expectation of unending cultural growth and expansion. After all, Carpathia and the rest of the German community had known nothing else but growth and prosperity. The coming decade would prove this expectation to be a false one but, for the time being, German cultural success was enjoyed by all of Detroit’s Germans.

 

Special thanks to Frank Bessel, Francis (Noll) Fay, Phil and Nick Jaeger, and Barbara (Brenner) Knight, who’s first-hand knowledge of the Elmwood Avenue hall has been invaluable in writing this report. Additional thanks to Martin Franz, Franz Mussar, Barbara Oriold, Elizabeth Rebl, and Theresea Schön, who helped decipher board meeting minutes from the Twenties written in the old Gothic script. _