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In New Book, A Tour Of Louisville's German Past

Imagine walking down East Market Street, in the neighborhood now known as NuLu, and hearing only German spoken on the streets.

That was the reality in the early 19th Century, when that area was known as “Little Germany." It was filled with German businesses, churches and schools. And it wasn't alone. Other areas in the city were German-dominated as well, far beyond the accelerating neighborhood known today as Germantown.

I recently took a tour of German Louisville with Bob and Vicky Ullrich, editors of the recent book “Germans in Louisville,” published by History Press.

They picked me up on the corner of Fourth and Broadway, and drove me around to several different German — or formerly German — sites around the city. Both Bob and Vicky are Louisville natives; his family is German, hers is German-speaking Swiss.

They’re not historians by trade, but they’re active in local German heritage organizations, so they jumped at the chance to put this book together. Before “Germans in Louisville,” the last published book on the subject was written in 1873. And it was in German.

Today, one-third of Louisville residents claim at least one German ancestor, according to Bob Ullrich. You can still see many remnants of German Louisville, like the Levy Brother’s department store downtown — now the home of the Old Spaghetti Factory restaurant. But this tour is mostly about imagining what used to be.

We parked at St. John United Church of Christ at the corner of Market and Clay streets. It was built in 1867 as St. John’s Evangelical Church and served a German congregation. There used to be a school there.

Across the street, the building housing the Swanson Reed Contemporary Gallery used to have a different purpose. Bob Ullrich pointed to the pediment.

"Now if you look across the street at that building on the corner, look up at the top there, you’ll see that used to be a pharmacy, a German-owned pharmacy, Voelker," Ullrich said.

I had never noticed the mortar and pestle on the front of the building before, but there it was. Ullrich said the business later moved out to Bardstown Road.

We walked west on Market Street until we reached a brightly colored storefront.

"My god, they painted the place yellow!" Bob Ullrich laughed. The space is empty now, but until recently it was the Bristol’s catering kitchen, and he had last visited when his daughter was getting married.

"This was Ising’s Bakery," Ullrich said. "Theodore Ising started a bakery here in 1866, and the bakery was in business until about the time of World War I."

We got back in the car and headed toward the Highlands to the former location of Zehnder’s Beer Garden (pictured above). Zehnder’s was one of the biggest in Louisville, three-and-a-half acres at the point where Bardstown and Baxter separate.

"There was a tavern that was right over on the Bardstown Road side, and then the beer garden went all the way back to Grinstead Drive," Ullrich said.

German beer gardens were family-friendly open spaces that saw most of their business on weekends, as opposed to saloons, which were mostly open just to men.

When the beer garden closed in 1900, the land was sold to the city for housing, and was known as Zehnder's Addition. The original owner, Dominick Zehnder, was Vicky Ullrich's great-grandfather.

"My grandparents met there," she said. "My grandmother Rose was a waitress at her father’s tavern, and Frank Birchler was a young man, a patron who came in, and they developed a romance and married, and my father was the youngest of their 10 children."

Another prominent German beer garden, Woodland Garden, was located at the corner of Market and Johnson Streets, beginning in 1848.

To supply those beer gardens and saloons, there were countless German-run breweries. But Prohibition decimated Louisville's brewing industry.

"Practically none of them came back after Prohibition," Ullrich said. "Only a few: Fehr’s, Oertel's and Falls City."

Any history of Germans in Louisville also has to include the Bloody Monday riots, an election day in 1855 that devolved into anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic violence, mostly directed at Irish and Germans. It all started at a polling place near where Shelby and Liberty streets intersect.

"Businesses were looted and burned, residents were beaten and shot, and from 11 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon, by that time they had made their way all the way down to Broadway, to St. Martin’s Church," said Ullrich.

The mayor, John Barbee, helped dissuade the mob from torching the church. But other buildings were burned, many people were injured, and the official death toll was 22.

In 2006, Bob and Vicky Ullrich helped establish a historical marker on West Main between 10th and 11th streets to memorialize the event. The site, which is now the Kentucky Lottery Building, was once Quinn's Row, a group of rowhouses mostly occupied by Irish. It was burned down during the Bloody Monday riots.

Bob Ullrich said the rhetoric against immigrants sounds familiar in today’s political environment.

"People object to immigrants coming to Louisville, and all they have to do is look at their ancestry and they find out that their family were immigrants too," he said.

“Germans in Louisville: A History” is available at local bookstores.