Ghosts Of German Olney


Mike Toklish in Olney | Sketch: Ben Leech

Mike Toklish in Olney | Sketch: Ben Leech

When 52 year old Mike Toklish’s family arrived in Philadelphia in early 1908, more than a half century before he was born, men holding the flags of various nations greeted his relatives at the port. Once his ancestors found the man with the German flag they were asked if they knew how to brew beer. They said that did, and they were quickly sent to work in Brewerytown and were moved into a trinity on 3rd and Arch Streets.

Germans in fact had been coming to Philadelphia very nearly as soon as William Penn secured his charter from the King of England. The German Society was founded in 1764 to aid German immigrants in language and cultural assimilation as well as legal issues. At that time, about 20 percent of Philadelphians were of German ancestry. This rate increased significantly in the next century. By 1860, fully one-third of Philadelphians had been born in Germany.

But the work was brutal and as Mike estimates, 20 people lived in the small tenement house. After time, his grandparents were able to pool the money they saved from their brewery jobs to purchase a bar-restaurant on Girard Avenue just a few blocks from Front Street. Over time, the place became profitable enough that family members no longer had to work in the breweries. And after a few more years, they made the decision to move to the newly developed Olney section of North Philadelphia.

Until the 1920s, Olney consisted of farmland and estates for the wealthy. But after Fisher Park was developed out of the estate of Joseph Wharton, founder of Swarthmore College and the Wharton School of Business, and factories such as Heintz Manufacturing Company moved in, Olney became an attractive place for immigrant families, especially the Germans.

“My grandmother took the trip up to the realtor’s office in Olney near the 600 Block of Lindley Street,” explained Mike, in a very convincing German accent. “She asked the realtor ‘How much for dis house.’ The realtor says, ‘Lady, you can’t afford this house.’ ‘Very well,’ she says, ‘but how much for dis house.’ The realtor says, ‘It’s two thousand dollars.’ My grandmother looks at him and asks, ‘How much for the whole block?’ She ended up buying the whole block.”

Coal shoots | Sketch: Ben Leech

Coal shoots | Sketch: Ben Leech

The legendary Schwarzwald Inn | Sketch: Ben Leech

The legendary Schwarzwald Inn | Sketch: Ben Leech










Mike’s grandparents moved into the corner house and rented out the remaining properties to the rest of the family, including Mike’s parents.

With their terracotta roofs, refined façades, and functional back allies–where families could run their clothes lines–the houses are almost unchanged today. Each basement retains its coal shoot window; the shuttered coal elevator and garage where coal was stored and then transported to the surrounding houses remains across the street.

The family made a good life for themselves on Lindley Street, although it was not without its own strife. As Mike recalled, the neighborhood was under close watch as Germany began to wage war in Europe, and it was common for German immigrants to be targeted by police.

“My grandparents were enjoying a night out at a beer garden in the summer,” Mike said, of a night in the late 1930s, “when in the middle of the celebration, a group of German nationalists raised the swastika. This was the first time my grandparents had seen it in America and they were shocked. When the police came my grandparents pleaded with them that they were not Nazis and were actually Austrian by decent. But the cops didn’t listen and threw them in jail for the night. When they came home their house was completely ransacked by the police.”

In some old family photos, indeed, there are crowds gathered with the Stars and Stripes right next to the swastika and Iron Cross. But after the US entered World War II, Mike’s family was much more careful of the company they kept.

About the author

Nic Esposito is an urban farmer, novelist and founder of The Head and the Hand Press. He lives on his urban homestead in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. Nic's new book Kensington Homestead was released by The Head & The Hand Press in November 2014.

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  1. The Story of the Trapp Family Singers by Maria Von Trapp talks about their time in Phila before they moved north.

  2. I am old enough to remember when Olney was still largely German – Fifth Street – Fünf Strasse – the cultural center as well as the business center. I can also remember when St Henry’s Church had their final German mass. But remember the wars did take their toll on German identity in the States, leaving Germans to forgo their old ties and traditions and especially language behind as they moved to the suburbs.

  3. My father’s family grew up in Olney – they lived around 4th and Godfrey. My first apartment was at 5th and Somerville, right down the street from Zapf’s. Loved that part of town.

    • brian duchossois

      I grew-up on Sommerville Ave. back in the 60’s. (558 W.Sommerville) As many did in the late 60’s my family moved to Levittown.

  4. I still own the house where I grew up in East Oak Llne. I was baptized in St. Henry’s and remember well the day that I heard Pete Puljer the German band leader play the violin for a Singing Society concert in the hall of the Church. The Germans were a close knit group and included many different job descriptions. Many worked in factories, or owned their own businesses. A few got very wealthy and we were proud to know them. I was so impressed at age five that I became a violinist and play to this day. Fairhill street had at least 6 German families. We dined often at Schwarzwald Inn and I bought music and worked my way through school at Zapf’s music store. I also dated the son of Walker’s Delicatessen. His name was Hans. We had wonderful times at the Catholic Kolping Society on Rising Sun AVe. It was truly a fun time to grow up. We did not have the worries of the present generation . We were happy with a far simpler life.

  5. I grew up on the 500 block of Lindley Avenue and was of mixed Irish 75% and German 25% descent. The German influences were very much apart of our everyday experience with Michelfelders , the German bakery whose name escapes me and the Schwartzwald Inn among the most obvious examples of German specialties.

  6. You’ve provided such a wonderful sense of the history of Olney and its inhabitants. Most of my German relatives migrated from the Germantown section of Philadelphia (where I was born) into the Olney neighborhood (where I grew up) throughout the 20th century. Further back, German immigrants occupied a large portion of the Spring Garden area in Center City. My German ancestors, in particular, owned a block of houses on Buttonwood Street in the early 20th century and on occasion (from what I’ve been told), ran a biergarten during festivals up at Lemon Hill. The German Society on Spring Garden still contains a wealth of information on German immigration to the area.

    The house I grew up in had an attached shed at its back where the stove was kept and an l-shaped bunker right beneath it. Now I’m curious as to what purpose these parts of the house served when it was originally built.

    Many thanks for this article and to those who contributed. A thoroughly enjoyable read!

    • My father, a Jewish boy, grew up near Olney and went to Olney High. He remembered getting beat up by the Nazi Bund – a gang of boys who ruled the neighborhood in the 1930 – 1940’s.

  7. I grew up in Feltonville just across ‘the Boulevard’ from Olney. Both my sisters graduated from Olney High School in the early 60s. In the 1950s there was still a German presence there. We called ‘The Felton’ movie house on Rising Sun Ave. the “German Movies” because on certain days they ran German language movies. (Now a Latino Club). We shopped on 5th street regularly.

    The Feltonville neighborhood then was a mix of older “empty nester” Jewish couples and young Catholic families whose kids went to Saint Ambrose and Cardinal Dougherty. “Becks on the Boulevard” and “The Schwarzwald Inn” were THE places to go.

    I do remember the stories of the “Olney (Nazi?) Bund”, a pro German group in pre WWII 1930s.

    BTW the Ben Leech sketch labelled “Coal Shoots” made me laugh. The correct term is coal chutes not “shoots”.

  8. I have many of the same memories and my grand uncle, Henry Engelbert Koenes (1883-1953) emigrated to Philadelphia in 1903, studied for the priesthood at St Charles, and was the founder and pastor/Monsignor of St. Henry’s parish in 1916 when 5000 Germans petitioned the archdiocese to established a German language parish north of center city. The church was a former beer hall called Central Park Hotel and later a basement church, rectory and school were built. Neighborhoods change and the church was closed in 1993. Alumni celebrated the 100th anniversary of St Henry’s last month.

  9. Movies at the Felton Theater were in German

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