Here’s some history on Kurt Vonnegut’s great-grandfather, Clemens Vonnegut. Enjoy!
Clemens Vonnegut, Sr. (November 20, 1824 – December 13, 1906) immigrated to the United States in 1851 after the failed German Revolutions of 1848 and 1849. Forty-Eighters, as these immigrants became known, were generally liberal minded and were politically and socially active in their new home. They had a large influence on the political, cultural, and social landscape of the United States, especially the Midwest where the majority of these immigrants settled. Their concepts, based on rationalism and freedom, led them to propagate new social structures, education, cultural, and physical training. As a German Forty-eighter, Clemens Vonnegut made a large impact on the political, cultural, and social landscape of Indianapolis.
Born in Munster, Westphalia in 1824, Vonnegut was educated in Hannover, and became a salesman for a textile firm in Amsterdam, Holland. He traveled to the United States as an agent for the textile mill and decided to immigrate to the United States in 1850.
Vonnegut was a politically, socially, and culturally active individual who made a strong impact on his new community. He moved to Indianapolis in 1851, started the Vonnegut Hardware Company on East Washington Street, and quickly became a respected member of the business community. Once established in the United States, he became known to be “of a sturdy type of manhood, honest, enterprising and public spirited.” Vonnegut Hardware remained in business in Indianapolis from 1852 through the early 1970’s.
He was a founding member of The Freethinker’s Society of Indianapolis and the Indianapolis Turngemeinde, which will be explored later in the essay. Vonnegut’s belief in the separation of Church and State and that organized religion threatened individual intellectual growth and personality was the foundational belief of The Freethinker’s Society. Like Vonnegut, they believed strongly in public education and that the best way to educate youth was through a well rounded education that involved critical thinking and was free of religious constraints. Strong supporters of continuing adult education, the Society hosted regular lectures and debates. Vonnegut participated in several of these lectures and debates and members of the society held his opinion in high esteem.
He also belonged to, and served as one time president, of the Maennerchor (a German men’s choir), and Gewerbeschulverein (introduced manual training to the public school curriculum). He strongly supported public schools and served on the Board of School Commissioners of the City of Indianapolis for 28 years. He actively pushed for the teaching of German and physical education in public schools. Like many of the liberal minded German Forty-Eighters, Vonnegut believed in the Turner’s motto, “a Strong Mind in a Strong Body.”
Vonnegut’s father worked as an official tax collector for the Duke of Westphalia. Highly educated, Vonnegut received his “Abitur,” the equivalent of an American college education, from the Hochschule in Hannover. In addition to German, his native tongue, Vonnegut spoke Latin, Greek, and French. He enjoyed reading history and philosophy. No doubt his educational background influenced his commitment to adult education; this commitment to education was shared by many of his fellow forty-eighters.
Vonnegut came to the United States in 1851 to conduct business for the textile firm in Amsterdam. After arriving, Vonnegut decided to stay and relocated to Indianapolis where he resided at 508 East Market Street. The Midwest was a popular place for German immigrants to settle because land was cheap and there was ample business opportunity. Vonnegut was immediately successful in his new home; he partnered with Charles Volmer, a fellow immigrant, in a merchandise business, “Volmer and Vonnegut”. When Volmer set out to explore opportunities in the West and was never heard from again, Vonnegut became sole proprietor of the business and changed the name to The Vonnegut Hardware Company.
The Vonnegut Hardware Company, located in downtown Indianapolis at 120 – 124 East Washington Street, prospered under the direction of Clemens Vonnegut. Vonnegut became, “one of the most well-known of the German businessmen in the city.” There were several businesses in the downtown shopping district that were started by German immigrants including Schnull & Co., the first wholesale grocery store in Indianapolis established at 103 East Washington Street in 1855 by Henry and August Schnull; Fahnley & McCrea Company, a millinery company with three locations at 8 Louisiana Street, 237 McCrea Street, and 240 – 242 South Meridian Street, established in 1865 by Frederick Fahnley and R. H. McCrea; and Hollweg & Reese Co., established in 1868 by Louis Hollweg and Hibben.
Fair and honest in business matters, Vonnegut had an interesting way of dealing with disgruntled contractors and several stories remain documenting Vonnegut’s eccentric behavior. For example, as a member of the Board of School Commissioners of the City of Indianapolis, Vonnegut oversaw the hiring of contractors for the school district. On one occasion a contractor, angered for not receiving a contract he felt he should have received because of his political ties, confronted Vonnegut. “Clemens pretended to be hard of ‘hearing’ . . . “took a pen-knife and pared his fingernails. The frustrated contractor then indulged in invectives. Clemens remained calm and silent . . . he took off his shoes and socks and proceeded to pare his toenails with intense but silent concentration.”
The Vonnegut Hardware Company sold a wide range of hardware merchandise that ranged supplies for machinists to hotel supplies and, “Tools for all trades”. Advertisements for the hardware store, which often read, “it is well to remember that the old adage still holds true: If you cannot find it at Vonnegut’s it is useless to go elsewhere,” could be found in Indianapolis Newspapers and even the Indianapolis City Directory. All of Vonnegut’s sons, Clemens, Jr., Bernard, George, and Franklin worked at The Vonnegut Hardware Company at some point in their lives. Clemens, Jr., George and Franklin took over the business at the end of the nineteenth century while Bernard turned to architecture. In the hands of the Vonnegut children, the hardware company expanded into a chain of retail hardware stores. The Vonnegut Hardware Company remained in the hands of the Vonnegut family until it closed in the early 1970’s.