One of the oldest and largest of the German-American clubs in Philadelphia, the Cannstatter Volksfest-Verein was founded in 1873 for the purpose of celebrating the customs and traditions of their homeland, especially the annual harvest festival held in the town of Bad Cannstatt. In addition, they hoped to use any income from the organization for charitable purposes. More than 140 years since that founding, all of the club’s purposes have been impressively maintained.
The annual Fest held on Labor Day weekend draws thousands of people, both German-Americans and others, to observe and participate in this colorful, ethnic event. The club also continues its charitable tradition providing support for German language schools, hospitals, nursing homes and orphanages, as well as to specific individuals in need.
Like many of the German-American Clubs , the Cannstatter originally drew members from a specific section of Germany, in this case the area of Southwestern Germany, generally known as Schwabenland, Represented today by the political subdivision , Baden-Württemberg. The Swabian, or Schwabs, as they are usually called in their distinctive regional dialect, are proud of their Heimat and a modified form of the Württemberg Coat-of-Arms appears on the club banner. They also take pride in the accomplishments of their Landsleuete (compatriots) in America, such as Godfrey Keebler and Christian Schmidt, two founders of this club who also are nationally known entrepreneurs. Whenever any German-American events are taking place, you will always find the Cannstatter supporting it, both financially and with volunteer workers – living proof of their club motto, Furchtlos und Treu (Fearless and True).
Strange as it may seem the history of our Cannstatter did not begin in America. The home and birthplace of the original Cannstatter Volksfest is the so called “Cannstatter Wasen” an extensive grassy plain, adjoining the ancient city of Bad Cannstatt in the old Swabian country, the kingdom of Wurttemberg. This ground was often used for military drills by the royal residence of Stuttgart.
In 1816 the food crop almost totally failed. The result of this failure brought great suffering to the populace for a two year period. King Wilhelm 1st did all in his power to help the people get relief. The King’s first endeavor was to try to improve animal husbandry. To do this he instituted an annual festival… This is similar to what we would now call a state fair. The first one was held on September 28, 1818. This even is carried on to this very time on the last three days of September.
It is this event that our modern Volksfest is modeled after. Picture if you will, the way it was 140+ years ago, in the United States. Congress had just established the Postal System. The United States went on the Gold Standard. A new process was discovered that would also wood pulp to be turned into paper. Jesse James died and Susan B. Anthony was fined $100 for trying to vote. Alexander Graham Bell would not invent the telephone for another three years. Thomas Edison would not invent the phonograph for another four years.
It was in 1873 that the Cannstatter Volksfest Verein came into being. As we look back we can see in our minds eye, a group of native Germans, living in a new land for only a short time, longing for home and the traditions of their youth. These people desired to preserve their traditions and to create a society within a society that would best fulfill their needs. So it was, that a group of men, with great vision, came together to form the organization which we now call the Cannstatter Volksfest Verein.
This group of men met on September 24th at the residence of Louis Hartmann, at 257 North Fifth St. This residence was also a wine saloon. The sole purpose of this meeting was to institute all things necessary to have their first festival, in the tradition of the Cannstatt area that they left. The festival took place only four days later on September 28th at Reistle’s Singerpark. Mr. Reistle was a participant at the first meeting and volunteered his ground for the festival. The Singerpark was in the Schuylkill Falls area of the city.
We can see what was important to these men. They instituted only three committees; Entertainment, Refreshments (Drinks) and Meals.
The first fest was a great success. It encouraged the men to form a committee of seven men to organize a society. Those men were John Bower, C.M. Baumann, Christian Schmidt, Godfrey Keebler, Fritz Klein, Charles Berlinger and Henry Jahke.
They drew up a constitution and by-laws based on 4 points. Continuation of the festival, promoting good fellowship among members and relieving poverty. By the second festival, the Cannstatter Volksfest Verein had accrued 130 members. It was also in 1874 that the Cannstatter started their long tradition of charitable giving. From the festival they netted $2,000. From this amount they gave $250 to the German Hospital and another $250 to the Masonic Humboldt-Verein. This tradition of charitable giving has never been interrupted, even in the darkest days of the Verein, when there were no profits and sometimes large losses.
Cannstatter Constitution circa 1879
In subsequent years the Verein also sponsored gala balls and other forms of entertainment such as humorous plays, similar to what we now call Carnival and even stage dramas. It was during the ball of 1875 that the Cannstatter’s first president, John Bower died of a heart attack on the dance floor. For the next ten years these balls and presentations flourished. Many of them were held at the Academy of Music, until 1884, when the Academy became inadequate. At that time Horticultural Hall, next to the Academy was rented. By this time club membership had swelled to 1,360.
Postcard from 1881 Cannstatter Carnival at the Philadelphia Academy of Music.
In 1883 the Cannstatters purchased a large number of grave sites in Greenmount Cemetery. These were to be given to the poor who could not afford personal internment. Eventually, over 150 grave sites were donated by the Cannstatters to indigent people. The remainder of our grave sites were donated to the city of Philadelphia in 1996.
After fifteen years of uninterrupted success, the lean years began in 1888. A new law concerning alcoholic beverages was enacted. The “High License Law” dictated that organizations such as the Cannstatters had to get a permit to use meeting grounds for activates such as our Folksfest. This permit had to be obtained from a judge. Opposition from surrounding neighbors, who thought that such festivals were a nuisance, made it impossible to get a permit.
To circumvent this legal problem, the Cannstatters took their show on the road. In 1889 the festival was held in Camden’s Schutzen-Park. The festival would remain in Camden until 1894, when it was finally returned to Philadelphia, were a license was obtained for Washington Park at 26th and Allegheny Avenue. The return home was a brilliant success, but by this time we had lost 65% of our membership and now had only 540 members.
One sad note from 1894 was the death of Christian Schmidt, our Treasurer. But, Mr. Schmidt would soon be followed by another famous personage. Albert Schoenhut of the famous toy making family, was elected President in 1897. It was also in 1897 that a statue of our great countryman and poet Freidrich Von Schiller was donated to the city and placed in Fairmount Park. A statue of Goethe was soon to follow.