History

Ghosts Of German Olney

March 14, 2013 | by Nicolas Esposito

(Page 2 of 2)

Olney | Sketch: Ben Leech

Olney | Sketch: Ben Leech

Mike was born in 1961 and spent his childhood in a house only three doors down from his grandparents. In the 1960s and 70s with American society being broadly upturned and Philadelphia undergoing a severe economic collapse, Olney’s traditional ways persisted. “Olneyites didn’t adopt the Philly accent,” he says, “they didn’t even go into Center City that often. We just kept to our border of Roosevelt Boulevard in the south to Cheltenham Avenue in the North, and Front Street in the East to Eighth Street in the West. We used to call the neighborhood, ‘Das Bund’”–The Republic.

From Mike’s childhood house we walked the two blocks to “Fis Street” to what still is the commercial center of Olney. The first building Mike pointed out was what used to be The Fern Rock Theatre, but is now a dollar store. Mike reminisced about how a local pastor would stand outside of the box office window turning away youth who were trying to see films intended for adult audiences. Although this pastor was not from the Incarnation of Our Lord Church and School where Mike’s family belonged, just his presence in this tight knit community was enough to force Mike and his friends to turn around as soon as they got close to the theater.

Zapf's Music | Sketch: Ben Leech

Zapf’s Music | Sketch: Ben Leech

We walked a bit further down the block and came to a building that now advertises Gibson School of Music, but was once the home of the legendary Zapf’s Music. You can still see the faded letters spelling out Zapf’s on the façade. “Herr Zapf would give lessons to almost every kid in Olney,” said Mike. “Back then, you’d constantly hear music coming from the living room windows of the homes. It was never unusual to see a marching band come parading down the street. Music was always important to the Eastern Europeans, and we brought that to Olney.”

Mike ended our tour down “Fis” Street by stopping in front of a nondescript brick building. He told me that this used to be Bernstein’s Books, where Mike incidentally first defied the cultural rules of the neighborhood. During Mike’s freshman year at Cardinal Dougherty the Catholic Herald had just put out a list of banned books, which in Mike’s adolescent subversion became his reading list. He went to the bookstore owned by Russian immigrant Mr. Bernstein because as he believed, “Mr. Bernstein wasn’t Catholic, so he didn’t have to follow the rules.” After thumbing through Bernstein’s collection of left-wing books, Mike came across Oscar Wilde’s A Portrait of Dorian Gray (which was originally published by Philadelphia’s Lippincott’s Magazine in 1890). Before he left, Mr. Bernstein asked if he’d like to sign up for a book club. Mike signed his name and then took the book down to Rittenhouse Square where he read it in anonymity, before destroying the evidence and returning to Olney.

He wasn’t back in the neighborhood for more than an hour before his parents and an administrative priest from Cardinal Dougherty confronted him about the book. It turned out that Mr. Bernstein had a deal with the administration at Cardinal Dougherty that they would buy textbooks from him in return from information on seditious literary acts. A rather stunning betrayal, but now Mike just laughs at this story and cites it as evidence of the tight-knit community.

We probably don’t think of any particular neighborhood in Philadelphia as German–not even Germantown. That may be because as an immigrant group–quite unlike Italian Americans of the same period–Germans lived in many neighborhoods and were relatively integrated. Olney began attracting African-Americans in the 1960s and Korean immigrants in the 1980s. Olney High School is often cited as the most linguistically diverse school in Philadelphia. The neighborhood may not be the same as when his family lived here, but Mike acknowledges it’s fulfilling to see new groups of people running the shops and living in the homes.

Before our tour was over, Mike asked me if I had ever seen “The Sound of Music.” I said that I hadn’t. He gave me a moderately puzzled look, and then went on to explain, “Well in the last scene the Von Trapps are fleeing Salzberg over the Alps and the movie ends. But you know where they went after.” He took a deep breath. “Olney.”

The Von Trapps had lost everything escaping Europe. But, said Mike with tears beginning to form in his eyes, “the people of Olney organized singing tours in all of the churches in the area, and helped them get back on their feet. The Von Trapp children made enough money to finally buy land in Vermont (which reminded them of Austria), and they built their ski lodge where people from Olney still go skiing today.”

“They were just such brave people.”

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About the Author

Nicolas Esposito 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.

64 Comments:

  1. rebecca says:

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

    1. William Royer says:

      My family lived on 2nd and Rubicam I lived on and off there from 1982-1990.

  2. Davis says:

    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.

    1. Cornelia Mueller says:

      My grand uncle, Henry Koenes, was founder and pastor of St Henry’s in 1916 (but, died in 1953). I was also at the last German mass. The Monsignor was buried in front of the rectory and the archdiocese sold his stone and moved him to Holy Seplucre without even telling us. The students recently celebrated the 100th anniversary of the school, even though the church and school closed. Sad.

      1. Henry Kones says:

        Cornelia…..you are a distant relative of mine….I’m hoping you see my response in your email inbox.
        HK

  3. Lynne says:

    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.

    1. brian duchossois says:

      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.

    2. Steve M says:

      I lived in 3 Olney houses as a child: Fairhill Street, Somerville Avenue, and Sparks Street. We moved to Levittown in 1954.

      1. Cynthia says:

        Hey Steve where on Fairhill street did you live my mom grew up there

      2. Molly says:

        Omg I grew up on fair hill street too! At olney ave. Moved out in 1999 and have missed it every day since…

  4. eleanore alter says:

    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.

    1. Cornelia Mueller says:

      My father, Rudy Mueller, was President of the Catholic Kolping Society for many years.

    2. Michael Rothstein says:

      My Grandfather owned the Tabor Deli it was at the corner of 5th and tabor. His name was Morris Roy.

      1. jim weber says:

        I remember him as “Mo” Roy. Bought many a sandwich there.

  5. Joe Kelly says:

    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.

    1. jim weber says:

      Leidig’s, perhaps?

      1. Alyson Newe says:

        My grandmother and grandfather owned Laidig’s Bakery!! My mom is Loretta Laidig Haeger!

    2. Joan Clancy says:

      Could it be Schenk’s Bakery? I grew up in Olney (229 W.
      Champlost Av)we had 5 excellent German bakeries in an easy walking distance. Fachsnacht Day was a yearly pre-Lent celebration, potato donuts on Wednesdays,
      hot crossed buns & the best Xmas cookies ever!

  6. Sharon says:

    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!

    1. Deb says:

      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. Ed K says:

    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”.

    1. Phyllis P Beck says:

      My parents were born in Scotland but my Dad loved the Becks on the Blvd. and Schwartzwald Inn food !

  8. Cornelia Mueller says:

    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.

    1. Stephen Kovacs says:

      Do you happen to know of or about Rev. Louis Kovacs? He was assistant pastor at St. Henry’s from 1951 to 1956. Any info about him from those days would be appreciated!

  9. Edward Tilton says:

    Movies at the Felton Theater were in German

    1. Cornelia Mueller says:

      My mom loved going to the German movies with me at the Felton. Plots always involved a castle, scenery and singing…pure schmaltz. However, I am still fluent in German.

  10. Kurt Wich says:

    My parents and I came to Philadelphia in February 1953,when I was 10. We were sponsored by the Kolping Society, and lived with the Pilger family on Lindley Avenue for a couple of weeks before we moved to an apartment across the street from St. Henry’s and ultimately to 4157 N. 8th Street. My father had been a German POW in Texas for 18 months during the war and was repatriated after the war. You didn’t need to speak English on 5th Street because the merchants mostly all spoke German. I attended St. Henry’s school, Cardinal Dougherty High, and then LaSalle College. I have fond memories of the area, Walker’s delicatesssen, Bergen’s Apotheke etc. Our wedding reception in 1967 was at the Schwarzwald Inn and Frau Trautz made sure everybody was well taken care of. I still remember going there on Sundays with Corning Ware dishes to take out Saurbraten, Rotkohl, and Kartoffel Kloese and bring it home because my father wanted a beer with his meal and PA had the blue laws at that time.
    Viele gute Erinnerungen. Tschuess, Kurt Wich

    1. Cornelia Mueller says:

      Kurt,
      Was your father in Crystal City TX? Check out Train to Crystal City by Jan Jabboe Russell. My father was taken in March, 1942 from his job at the Widener Estate and spent time in 4 different internment camps, but, luckily wasn’t repatriated.

    2. Lee Foulkrod says:

      Hi Cornelia.
      I realize this is old. I’m interested in more details about your father and his time working for the Wideners, who ironically are of German descent. It’s just been a hobby of mine to document the Wideners and their estates.

  11. W Fred Rump says:

    Kurt Wich, we all knew the Pilgers of the Kolping well. They were good people as most were back then. My wife and I got married in our local parish at St Henry’s by Fr Brown in 1960. He loved his German music and dancing at the Kolping House. My parents were refugees who had come over with me in 1952 and quickly bought their first house from Alphonse Ellerkamp’s Real Estate business (another Kolping member) down on 5th St (& Wingohocking ?) for $8000 – 4357 N. 4th St. It was all so long ago but the house still stands.

    1. Suzanne woolslayer says:

      We’re you still living on 4th street in the 1970s? We lived at 4340.

  12. W Fred Rump says:

    This is a 2013 article somehow resurrected from the internet archives which never forget anything. I basically grew up in Olney even though I’m not sure what our neighborhood around St Henry’s was called. 5th & Olney was just a short trolley ride down the road. My paper route covered the whole area and among my first dreams of a young refugee boy was to get my very own bicycle. So I kept going to the Firestone store at 5th and Tabor just to smell the aroma. (I still love that smell). Eventually one of the sales guys and I got to talking and I walked out with a brand new Firestone bike. It was really a Schwinn and became my horse and wagon for every purpose. The strange thing was that I bought the bike with a few dollars down and the rest on a time payment basis. They trusted me to come back every week. It made me feel like a man. With my last payment I felt like I had purchased the world.

    1. Kitty Hurst says:

      Fred,
      I believe the neighborhood around Saint Henry’s was called Nice Town. I lived across the street from the church on Purdy Street.

  13. Tom Wilsbach says:

    when I was growing up in Logan in the 60s and taking German at CD (’66) I remember Bernstein’s fondly. My cousin was a Russian major at La Salle and bought all his books there, which resulted in a visit from the FBI (just looking). Several of the stores in that block had lettering on their windows: “Man spricht hier Deutsch”. I bought several instruments at Zapf’s and loads of sheet music. good memories.

  14. Diana Muschert says:

    I remember the Schwarzwald at 2nd and Olney Avenue for many years a great place to eat.

  15. Andrew Dunn says:

    My mother (her mother german) that during WW II the inside joke in Olney was that half the residents were of German ancestory and the other half were FBI agents pretending to be german to capture NAZI’s. My grandmother worked for Link-Belt but used her married name – Stanton but not her maiden name – Maurer .

  16. Andrew Dunn says:

    What do you know about the textile company F.W. Maurer & Sons

    1. Gina says:

      Hey frank, it’s us gina and Jerry, love reading all these beautiful messages, does any one remember salamander shoes?

  17. frank berner says:

    we[my mother,bernardine and my father frank berner] lived with my grandfather harry gebel next to incarnation before moving to 5850 marshall st next to fishers park around 1950 very irish very german very happy residents til we moved to warminxter in 1968

    1. Jad says:

      yes when the schwartzwald closed& you wanted another drink you went to doodles

  18. WALTER E BARBIN says:

    was there a bar in the 50’s called dodels at mascher & olney ave.across from the schwartzwald inn I might have the name wrong but I know it was german owned

  19. Erika Angermann Rigling says:

    I am amazed that I have found this site. I grew up at 6th and Olney… Graduated Olney High in Jan 1953. All that you are collecting seems so very full of memories. I was even telling someone the other day about the coal chutes!!!
    I’ll be back to read more. (Too late tonight!)

    1. Glenn K. Burger says:

      Talk about a blast from the past. I’m an old Olney boy, born and raised, whose folks immigrated from Heilbronn am Neckar in 1929. They initially settled in Fishtown and then came to Olney. I was going through some old family papers and found an old Schwarzwald Inn place mat menu. Decided to look it up and reminisce a little. The Schwarzwald was our go to restaurant, aber naturlich, and growing up we spent a lot of time there for all kinds of celebrations. Beautiful memories. We lived on the corner of Chew and Marshall in what now seem like ‘kinder, gentler’ times. Went to Lowell Elementary, Olney High and St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran at 5th and Nedro. Spent more time than I care to admit in Fisher’s Park and the Fern Rock Theater. Father was a machinist at the Frankford Arsenal and then the Franklin Institute Museum. I would hoof it all over the city on the trolleys (47 Car down 5th), buses and subways. Worked as a kid at the vegetable grocer at 5th and Chew and a few other businesses along 5th and was a bagboy at the A&P on 5th, south of Roosevelt Blvd. My best friend’s father owned/ran Chris’ Lunch on Olney Ave., between 5th and N. Lawrence. Olney was our turf. Folks moved out to Southampton in the mid 60’s where I finished high school.
      Haven’t been back to Olney in many years. Seems like a time for a pilgrimage.

      1. B Ditrich says:

        Bring a gun for protection. The area now will break your heart.

      2. Steve M says:

        I also went to St. Paul’s as a young child in the 1940s and early 1950s. My mother had been a member since she was a child. She told me that they had German-language services back then.

      3. Gregory Louridas says:

        Glenn, my brother Chris and I were good friends with you and your brother Richard.
        Our father owned Chris’ Lunch.

  20. CARL KIESEL says:

    GLENN,
    MY MOM GREW UP THERE. GRADUATED IN THE EARLY 40S. HER NAME WAS ELSIE NEUMANN. HER PARENTS HAD A BAR/BAKERY. HUGO AND OLGA. MY SON IS TRYING TO FIND HIS ROOTS. RING ANY BELLS?

    THANX!

  21. Myparents(both German descent) and siblings lived at 251 Sheldon St. from 1920 to 1955.
    I really enjoyed this account of Olney.

  22. Eric says:

    Very interesting read. I grew up in Olney, went to St. Helena and CDHS my freshman year. I’ve been in California since 97. I watched Rocky IV with two friends and then we went down 5th Street afterward, ate at Peppinos. Merry Christmas.

  23. Beth Tafel says:

    Nicholas Esposito – Great article but PLEASE correct your spellings of the words ‘chutes’ (not ‘shoots’) and ‘alleys’ (not allies)! Yikes!

    1. Ah, the Schwarzwald Inn – every anniversary, birthday, funeral in my family we went there .

    2. Gene Ritzius says:

      Nicholas Esposito – love the article, but it’s Lindley AVENUE, not Lindley Street. I lived on the 5200 block of Marshall St. and took the “J” bus frequently.

  24. Bob Lieber says:

    I grew up on Wentz St – by Front and Olney. Great memories 💗 of Olney. Whether, Fern Rock Theater or Schwarzwald Inn and of course trips down 5th St – attended St Helena’s & Cardinal Dougherty before serving in the US Navy for 6 years – thank you for sharing 💞

  25. I grew up in Olny at Spencer and Masher in the late 40’s. Parents were of Scotch Irish English German heritage. Remember Fisher Park well and the Fern Rock Theater.

  26. AliceAvramMcAllister says:

    My Dad was born in Germany. He came over when he was 16 and eventually joined the US Marines and fought in WW11. He was on Iwo Jima and watched them raise the flag. He was proud to be an American but loved living in Olney at 2nd and Godfrey. It was a great place for me to grow up. My best friend lived across the street from me. Linda Weichs. Her father owned a German Bakery in the neighborhood. Gee, I miss those days. I’m 76 now but still like to remember those wonderful times. Thanks for bringing back all these memories.

    1. Trish says:

      Was Leidigs the name of the german bakery?

      1. Alyson Newe says:

        Laidig’s Bakery! My grandparents owned it and my mom, Loretta, spent much of her childhood playing in the bakery!

    2. Nancy Mac says:

      My grandparents lived in Olney section on Rising Sun across from the A&P. Myother and ain’t graduated from Olney. Grandpop was Germany& the rest of my family lived in Germantown. Great memories of the area as a child. Use to sit in the window and watch the trolleys, people at A&P and the kids at the Catholic school across the street. For treats grandpop took use to a German bakery that we could walk to. Wonder if it your families?

  27. Eileen (Eisele) Bruch says:

    My parents owned Eisele Flowers. My five sisters and brothers had a wonderful childhood. We went to St Helenas and CDHS. Spent the summer playing at Lowell School playground. I was a teacher in Philly for 35 years. My daughter teaches at Morrison 3rd and Duncannon. I have volunteered there a few times. So many memories.

    1. Frank Fee says:

      And I remember the fish pond

  28. Maureen Fitzpatrick says:

    Hello! Thanks for the interesting read. Anyone know anything about the old Olney Hospital? I was born there 1956. My parents had moved to Germantown from NYC for my father’s job, daddy had grown up in amongst immigrant families of all backgrounds in NYC and particularly loved German food! They relocated to the Willow Grove area shortly before I was born. I’m trying to put together all the details.

  29. A resident of Olney for many years. Memories include the spring water at Fischer park, the hobby shop on 5th st., Woolworths and Kresgesstores, rolling from the lobby onto 5th st. at the Colony movie, sledding down Dead Man’s hill in Fisher park, thousands of Catholics attending St. Helena church (always seemed to fill to the max despite how large it was), Al’s candy ice cream shop at Lawrence and Grange, the library on 5th st.

  30. Mike Finley says:

    I worked at the Schwarzwald as a teenage busboy in the 1960s and played for the Olney Eagles. Lots of Olney memories, both good and bad, mostly good. I can tell you a couple of funny stories about 5th St, CD, St. Ambrose (class of ’67), and all the hangouts at the playgrounds in both Olney and Feltonville.

  31. Linda says:

    I lived on Olney on Linton St., went to Lowell and Olney High. Sunday services at St Paul’s with Pastor Wisznat. Regular services in German with the German choir which were always filled. I remember the bazaars at St Paul’s with they worked hard to make over 600 lbs of German Potato Salad and spechets (noodles). Many of good times with all my friends on Fis St,going to the Fern Rock. Walking back and forth to Olney for 4 years. Such wonderful memories.

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