Vol. III, No. 1, Summer 1989

Preservation Corner

Washington River Town

By Mimi Stiritz

This year Washington, Missouri is celebrating its Sesquicentennial with events and activities which will continue into November. The city's rich heritage is also being recognized by the submission of two district nominations to the National Register of historic Places. Located about fifty miles southwest of St. Louis, Washington is picturesquely sited on the south bank of the Missouri River. It is one of Missouri's few river towns in which the original orientation to the river itself survives. Nineteenth century brick buildings housing restaurants, bed and breakfast accommodations, specialty shops, and a corncob pipe factory row up near the riverbank, only a few steps from the water.

Washington's location at a good natural ferry landing first attracted native American settlers from Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia following the close of the War of 1812. The town was founded by Kentuckians William and Lucinda Owens who arrived in Franklin County in 1818, the year the county was organized. With steamboats navigating the Missouri river by 1819, and a rich agricultural trade developing in the countryside on both sides of the river, the Owens foresaw the potential for a booming river port. They were selling lots by 1829. The town was not officially laid out until 1839 however.

Lithograph courtesy of Washington Historical Society


During that decade, the migration of Germans became a dominant factor in the history of Washington. The Missouri-Mississippi River system provided direct connections from the port of New Orleans, and proved to be the highway for German settlement extending along both sides of the Missouri River from St. Louis to Franklin County, to its principal town, Washington, and beyond. By 1840, approximately one-third of Franklin county's population was German, with an even higher percentage residing in Washington.

Washington benefitted from Gottfried Duden's 1833 Report.* A group of twelve Catholic families from the Osnabruck District, province of Hannover, were headed up the Missouri toward Duden's Warren County, on the north side of the river. They were by the Captain to land on the south bank at Washington instead, where they were assured they would find a healthier climate and a hospitable reception by Mr. Owens. They formed the nucleus of St. Francis Borgia In succeeding years, Washington's population was swelled by a sizable influx of Hannoverians. Many of them farmed in and around the limits of Washington, while others worked in town as day laborers, blacksmiths, carpenters, shoemakers, storekeepers, tailors, etc.

The upheaval in Germany following the failure of the 1848 Revolution benefited Washington. A steady stream of prosperous, educated Germans came in the 1850s and '60s to make significant contributions to its commercial, industrial, and cultural growth, including its architecture. Washington offered them a small but securely established community of Duden's early followers, a favorable situation on high terrain, excel lent commercial prospects through a lively steamboat traffic, and proximity both to the St. Louis market and the thriving country trade. Construction of the Pacific Railroad connecting Washington to St. Louis in early 1855, (and soon after to Jefferson City) made Washington even more attractive.

During the 1850s Washington's Germans made it the cultural center for the old Duden settlement across the river in Warren County, as well as for their fellow countrymen in rural Franklin County. Cultural activities of the homeland were organized, and familiar institutions were transplanted. In 1854 a drama club which had been performing at nearby Hermann moved to Washington, and in 1855 a sizable hall, the Theaterverin, was built to stage German classical and popular drama, apparently cast from local families. The theatre building was also used for musical performances, supported by a Musical Society and a Maennerchor. Later, several local bands and orchestras offered concerts there. The Washington Theaterverin is still standing.

In 1859, less than a decade after the first St. Louis Turnverin was founded, a Turner Society was organized in Washington. In 1866 they constructed a Turnverin building which hosted social activities of the town in addition to offering the traditional gymnastics program. Turners remained active in Washington until 1932 when the Elks purchased their building. It is still in use.

Washington's first newspaper, 1856, initiated a tradition of German journalism, another indicator of the community's growing importance as a center of German culture. Adelbert Baudissin, editor and proprietor of the bilingual Franklin Courier, was a former count from Holstein who was among those who fled Germany after the 1848

uprising. An educated man of considerable means, Baudissin also published a handbook for prospective German emigrants to Missouri similar in purpose to Duden's work. Two other German newspapers were in circulation in the mid and late 1860s. In 1869 Otto Brix founded Die Washingtoner Post, which would perpetuate the mother tongue for German-reading patrons of Franklin county until 1912.

During the Civil War years Washington became a hotbed of Radical Unionism whose outcries could be heard at fiery meetings in the Theaterverein Building, earning it the name, "Liberty Hall." Staunchly opposed to slavery in a county whose slaves numbered above 2000 in 1860, Washington Germans took a courageous public stand against Southerners who defended slavery and state rights. Numerous local Germans, many trained in the German army, answered the call to arms.

Wine production and beer brewing, two occupations usually associated with Germans in Missouri, were in evidence in Washington. Early success of viticulture in the neighboring Hermann area encouraged Washington Germans to take it up. In 1870, a Wine Exposition was held in the city; five years later the Gazetteer of Missouri noted several local wine-making firms. Two brewers were already in Washington by 1850. What was to be the primary brewery was established in 1854 when John B. Busch from Hesse-Darmstadt began production with brother Henry and partner Fred Gersie. John Busch was the older brother of the famous St. Louis beer baron Adolphus Busch, who did not enter the industry until a decade later.

Waterworks in Washington, Franklin County, Mo. Front street is to the left and the Missouri River is in the background. (National Register of Historic Places)


Throughout its building history, Washington consistently has been a city of structures displaying a high quality of materials and craftsmanship as well as solid design. The long line of skilled architects, carpenter/builders, and brick and stone masons who lived and worked in the city, the abundance of good clays for brick manufacture, along with the presence of lumber mills, provided a fertile climate for architectural development. Although the majority of buildings would be classified as vernacular or folk architecture, in retrospect it seems no surprise that the town produced four young men of German descent who became prominent St. Louis architects: Otto Wilhelmi, Louis and Oscar Mullgardt, and August Beinke. And this despite Washington's having few more than 3000 population in 1900.

Already by 1850, brick construction was imparting a substantial and permanent look to the town; at least four brickmasons were using local clay for brick manufacture. A decade later, thirteen brickmasons were working in Washington, nine of them German. By the late nineteenth century Germans controlled the local brick industry and Washington promoted itself as "A solid town of brick," constructed "like the old biblical story of a house upon a rock," its buildings, streets and sidewalks "in keeping with its foundation, being nearly all of brick and stone."

Designed in a vernacular adaptation of Federal/Greek Revival style, the buildings of the 1850s and 1860s introduced a conservative classical design tradition which held fast for decades to come. While the city's builders and architects were not unresponsive to changing national stylistic trends, a common denominator of materials, form and articulation remained to provide continuity to much of the city's architecture. Consistent use of unpretentious facades, heavy-scaled brick masonry, restrained ornament including such specific detailing as segmental arches and brick corbelled cornices, together gave tangible expression to values shared by both owners and builders. They included a respect for and pride in fine craftsmanship and materials; and simple, dignified forms, clearly stated, guided by a principle of utility.

Today, Washington appears much as it did fifty years ago: a downtown with brisk commercial activity, well-maintained homes, flourishing parish churches and schools, and some old industrial buildings still in use, most notably the large Missouri Meerschaum Company plant (corncob pipes) and two groups of grain bins. A number of commercial buildings have been owned and operated by the same families since 1900 or before.

Washington's application for National Register listing of the city's central business district was prompted in part by a desire to encourage the renovation of income-producing property under the 20 percent federal income tax credit program for the rehabilitation of historic structures. At the same time the city plans to use another Historic Preservation Fund grant to prepare a set of voluntary design guidelines and a preservation plan for the central business district. Like many

other Missouri communities, Washington has found that the preservation of its historic resources makes good economic sense, especially in terms of generating revenue from tourism.

*See "The German Presence in the Ozarks," p. 14

The historic district, Washington, Franklin County, Mo. (National Register of Historic Places)
Mimi Stiritz is an historic preservation professional living in St. Louis. She researched and prepared the Washington nominations to the National Register of Historic Places.
Suggested Readings

Gregory, Ralph. The German-Americans in the Washington, Missouri Area (Washington: Missourian Publishing Company, 1981 )

McClure, E. B. History of Washington, Missouri. (Washington: the Washington Missourian,. 1939)

Weil, T. "Corncob Capital of the World." New York Times, 3 October, 1982

WPA Writers' Program, comp. Missouri: A Guide to the "Show-Me" State (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1941)


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