The Search for German Old-Time Music

More accurately, today’s topic is the old-time music played by musicians from German communities around Hoagland, Indiana. The question of how much of the music played for barn dances and house dances was actually German is a question I’ve never been able to answer fully. There’s no doubt that square dancing was very popular in these German communities as far back as the 1880s. But why? Daily life then was carried on in Plattdeutsch (low German),  Square dance calls were in English. My Great-Grandpa Flaugh was a caller, and Clara Franke, my grandmother verifed that he used standard English calls as ‘promenade’ and ‘allemande left.’ Amos Kline, who ran Kline’s Barn, a commercially successful dance hall east of Fort Wayne near Zulu in the 1930s and ’40s, told me that the crowds of dancers who kept him in business were all the German folk from down in the area between Hoagland and Decatur.  And by the 1980s, when square dancing around Hoagland had been supplemented with a self-consciously German revitalization of the polka, one of the favorite bands (from the equally German area around Napoleon, Ohio) regularly announced that it was now time for a set of “English square dances.”

First, a little background. German immigrants were the first European-Americans to settle in southeastern Allen County, Indiana, beginning in the 1840s. It was an area of wooded wetlands–swamps, if you will–and not a suitable location for villages of the locals, Indians of the Miami confederation. There was a well-worn Indian trail, later named Wayne Trace, that cut across the surveyed grid of roads legislated by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Wayne Trace was a dirt road that stopped about a half-mile to the southeast of Hoagland. It started up again at the Minnich road and ran northwest up through the Soest community and on into Fort Wayne. In my day, that stretch of Wayne Trace was only partly paved. The old Indian trail connecting these two stretches would probably have passed right through the Tyler property on Hoagland Road. In the 1950s and ’60s there was no obvious evidence of this earlier history, except for a historical marker placed near the end of our driveway by the Allen County Historical Society. It noted that Hoagland was platted in 1872.

A few Anglo-Americans established themselves in the area before 1872, but it was the huge earlier influx of Germans that made the dominant cultural imprint. Immigrants directly from Lower Saxony and other areas of northern Germany came to this part of Indiana and Ohio to claim homes, drain and clear the land for fields, and build communities. A circuit-riding German Lutheran minister (his great-great-great grandson was a college classmate of mine) helped establish several congregations in the 1840s: St. John’s Bingen (two miles south of Hoagland) and Emmanuel Soest (a few miles northwest) were the first, followed soon after by St. John Flatrock (two miles East). Flatrock, the church and school attended by the Franke family, and thus central to my story, was founded in 1849. Within ten miles of Hoagland, south in Adams County, are three more German Lutheran congregations formed at the same time, two of them even older. Zion Friedheim and St. Peter’s Fuelling were founded in 1838, with Immanuel Union Township coming along in 1849.

This account is intended to convey the depth of the German presence in Hoagland, or more accurately, the open country around Hoagland. That cultural presence extends beyond this core towards other rural German communities, such as Marquardts outside of Monroeville and Hessen Cassell, between Hoagland and Fort Wayne. The latter is the only German community centered around a Roman Catholic church. Even Fort Wayne must be regarded as one of the most German cities in the United States. I grew up in this arguably most German area of the country with a love for old-time square dancing and a curiosity about how these Good Germans came to have such a strong love for a social dance form with French roots, English calls, and a thoroughly American history.

Some of Hoagland’s older citizens in the period from 1976 to 1988 provided partial answers.  My grandmother’s memory stretches the furthest back into the 19th century. She told me a story related to her by her mother of an incident that happened before 1890, the year my grandma was born.  Here are Clara Franke’s words: “Mom would used to tell, it tickles me.  She used to tell about when she was a little school girl.  And the kids played. . . .  And she said that Uncle Duff Dauer. . . he was older than she was. . . and they used to play they was dancing.  And he’d call.  He’d call ‘Teleman left,’ he’d say; then ‘all a prom, all a pomay.’  ‘All promenade’ you know, ‘ all a pomay.’  She used to tell that.  It would always tickle me so.”

Grandma remembered well the time when barn dances and house dances were a most important social gathering in the neighborhood for all generations. The square dance, which they called a quadrille, was central, but not the only dance. “They’d dance three changes [of the quadrille].  Then they’d play a waltz, a three-step, a two-step . . . I  don’t remember whether they danced a foxtrot or not. Now I never did learn to waltz.  I tried a couple of times, but I just couldn’t learn.  And Daddy never waltzed.  Daddy never danced anything but a square dance.”

Grandma remembered some of the older musicians, but she could not tell much about the tunes they played.  Here’s another bit from my interview on December 28, 1976.

CF: Grandpa [Fred Franke, my grandfather] played the mouth harp, and Bill Ahlfelt–here this house, way back in the lane, you know, on the Hoagland Road, across from Ervin Koeneman’s, that’s where Ahlfelts live. Bill Ahlfelt played the guitar and Henry Ahlfelt played a mandolin. . . . For our wedding, we had the Rohrbach boys.  One played the violin, I know. . . . Bill Peppler, did you know Bill Peppler?
PT:  The name’s familiar.
CF:  Well, they belonged to our church.  He’s buried here on the cemetery.  Well,  she is too, she is too. They’re buried right close to where Dad and I have our lot.  And uh, Bill Peppler used to play the accordion. That was a little box about like this when it was closed up, and then, they could pull it way out, you know.  It was nice music. . . . Oh, if Lena Peppler was living she could tell you . . .Bill would play at a dance and Lena would go along.  She’d go along and she’d dance to beat the dickens.

I got a little bit more information about the old-time German musicians of the Hoagland area from the early years of the 20th century from a few other conversations.  My first attempt at an interview didn’t go so well.  Edgar Witte lived just down the road from us.  He knew my family, but I didn’t really know him.  When I showed up on his door step in December 1976, he didn’t know what to make of a long-haired college kid asking him about the old days.  He never invited me in, and I never got to ask about tape-recording his memories. I also regret that I never went back to try to establish a better rapport.  When I left his front steps, I sat in my car and wrote what I could remember into my notebook.  Here is a paraphrase of what he told me:

Talk to my brother. He would tell you more about that. He’s got my banjo. I played for about ten or 15 years. We played all over, even over in Ohio. We had a lot of different people in the band. One guy would have a clarinet, one a violin. This one would drop out, then that one would drop out. Once we played back in a platform back in the woods. Most of the time we played in barns. They were cold. We played the same kind of music they have on the records they have on TV. ‘Paw and Maw’ I think they call it. [Hee-Haw ?] We didn’t have any microphones in them days. You had to play your heart out to be heard. Now you just touch the thing. Stand close and you’ve got a good loud sound.  I played the banjo. Plectrum. One guy had a mandolin. A ‘bug,’ we called it.

I had become a much better interviewer by May 22, 1988, when I went to visit Elmer and Velma Grotrian in their farm house about a mile from the Franke homestead. They were avid dancers, starting with the old-time barn and house dances of the early 1900s through the rise of the polka revival in the 1980s. Elmer was born in 1904, and full of vivid memories.  In the old days, one of the most popular musical ensembles in the Hoagland area was Wilbur Scheumann’s orchestra, with Wilbur on saxophone, Gus Macke on concertina; Herb Milan on banjo; and Pete Hockemeyer on drums. Here’s an excerpt from that interview.

EG:    Now those boys, they went out and played for anybody  who wanted to give a public dance.  Anybody that had a barn . . . that was fit to have a dance on, that they wanted to entertain like their community or group or whatever it was, why they would put on a dance; and these guys would go and play for something like that.  That Wilbur Scheuman’s  gang was a pretty popular band at that time. . . .  Now, when you’re talking violin, Bill Peppler was a violinist.  Now him again and old Bushman Rohrbach and, either Bushman Rohrbach or Charlie Judt.  Charlie Judt played the concertina too.  Now Bill Peppler, he was got about, oh, about half shot, liquor or what have you.  He’d stand one leg out like this and saw, he would saw it off, by God.  And the more the people enjoyed it, the better he could play.  He had to get about half teed up first, so he could wheel her out.  Now the Thiele boys, now Fred Thiele, he was a violin player too [Paul Thiele was the caller, Coony Meckholt (or Thiele ?) played concertina] . . . Cooney Thiele was the one, he enjoyed drinking a little bit too.  And he got wound up.  Why he really enjoyed seeing people get out and dance.  And like I said, in those days it wasn’t a matter of what they was going to get out of it as the pleasure of seeing people entertain themselves.  That was the idea.

That’s as far back as living memory has been able to take me.  The musicians named here were active in the first three decades of the 20th century.  I hope it is clear to the reader that all of their surnames are German names. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you exactly what tunes they played, though they seemed to be of the same category presented by Hee-Haw fifty years later, at least in the estimation of Edgar Witte.  The violin and concertina were important. But a lot of instruments also had a place in the old-time German dance bands of northeastern Indiana.

More to come.

3 Comments

  1. Jean Tyler Ehrman said:

    Could Edgar Witte’s reference to “Paw and Maw’ be “Ma and Pa Kettle”? Ot one time Uncle Melvin had a whole bookshelf full of videotapes he had made of “Ma and Pa Kettle” movies. I’m sure he’d love to talk to you about this–or anything else. 😉

    I loved reading about all of this “down-home” research. I was struck by the thought that the old Miami trail known as Wayne Trace may have indeed crossed our property on the edge of Hoagland. Makes sense geographically. Thanks !

    January 21, 2011
    Reply
  2. DrD said:

    I don’t think Ma and Pa Kettle videotapes were being marketed on tv in 1976. I remember Dad talking about Ma and Pa Kettle. I have no direct experience with their show. Was music at all prominent? A trip to YouTube is in order.

    It dawns on me now, that Mr. Witte may have been referring to some sort of K-Tel record album being promoted at that time, “as seen on TV!” I’ve never watched enough tv to keep up with those kind of references. But I’ll bet some google time will net an answer.

    “But wait! There’s more!” Indeed, google quickly found K-Tel on the web with a massive display of the LPs they advertised on TV in the 70s and beyond. There are 50 pages of album covers, 24 to a page. I browsed through them all and found nothing that resembled “Paw and Maw” or “Ma and Paw.”

    So I’m going to go with my first conjecture. Mr. Witte was trying to come up with the name ‘Hee-Haw.’

    Re: the Wayne Trace, look at the two google maps I linked. We were right on the path.

    January 22, 2011
    Reply
  3. Carol J. Harbin said:

    ran across this while looking for the location of the Soest Homestead. My mother was a Soest and her grandfather had a sawmill in Soest.

    Found this most interesting.

    January 5, 2012
    Reply

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