A German-American Contribution to Davenport’s History: Turnverein, the Turner Movement

Be sure to check out “Sound Mind Sound Body: Turnverein Traditions,” the latest exhibit presented by our fellow downtown Davenport history and cultural institution, the German American Heritage Center. In support, we offer this brief history of the Turner Movement written by Anna Teggatz, the Richardson-Sloane Special Collections Center’s 2017 intern from Western Illinois University:

Gymnastics and the Turner Movement

Upon hearing the word “gymnastics,” you may immediately think of balance beams, rings, the splits, and the Olympics. Although gymnastics is now considered a competitive sport, it was once part of a broader cultural movement that encouraged the exercise of the mind and body in concert, with a focus on civic engagement. German immigrants brought the ideas of the Turnverein (an association of gymnastics clubs) to U.S. cities like Davenport in the mid-19th century.

The first gymnastics club was created in 1811 by Friedrich Ludwig Jahn in Berlin, Germany. Known as the “father of gymnastics,” Jahn invented many pieces of equipment used in gymnastics today, such as parallel bars, rings, balance beams, and horizontal bars. While Jahn strongly stressed the importance of physical exercise in gymnastics, he also emphasized the significance of exercising one’s mental health by fulfilling civic duties and recognizing his/her identity within society.

The first Turner societies established by German immigrants to the United States were in the cities of Louisville and Cincinnati in 1848. Within three years, 22 societies were founded, an official national organization called the “Die Vereinigten Turnvereine Amerikas (the United Turnvereine of America) was established, a national newspaper, the Turnzeitung was created, and several national conventions and competitions were held across the country. The American Turners’ stated purpose was to

”…promote physical education and disseminate rational ideas, in order to advance health, happiness, prosperity, and the progress of mankind. The Turner principles, briefly summarized, are as follows: Liberty, against all oppression; Tolerance, against all fanaticism; Reason, against all superstition; Justice against all exploitation! Free speech, free press, free assembly for the discussion of all questions, so that men and women may think unfettered and order their lives by the dictates of conscience – such is our ideal, which we strive to attain through “a sound mind in a sound body.” [1]

The Davenport Turn-Gemeinde, founded in November 1852, was among the earliest societies to form in the United States. Songs like this, sung from the society’s songbook, would have helped the members spread the Turners’ message as well as cement it in their own minds:

“American Turner Song” (Stanza 1)

We are building for to-morrow,/For a strong and active life,/Not for fame, or gold to borrow,/Not to wage a war of strife./For our home and land we’ll labor,/We will give our best each day;/With this watchword on our banner/“Forward” for America.” [2]

As the movement took root, the Turners soon became involved in America’s politics, primarily those revolving around slavery and immigration during the Civil War. Turners certainly exercised both their physical and mental strengths as Union Army soldiers in the conflict. Following the war, the Turners continued to advocate gymnastics and their principles throughout the nation and, by the end of the century, there were more than 300 societies and 40,000 members across the country.

The Central Turners in Davenport were one of these societies.  Established in 1880, this society was located at the southwest corner of 3rd and Scott Streets. The Turners also continued to play political roles following the war, as they opposed both Prohibition and Sabbath-Day laws due to the threats these laws posed to German customs.

Despite their positive influence throughout the United States in the years during and after the Civil War, the Turners were to experience the anti-German sentiment enmity that arose as the Americans entered the First World War. Some Turner societies were forced to dissolve while others changed their German names to English ones in an attempt to decrease the hostility they were experiencing and to ensure others of their allegiance to the U.S. In the face of these obstacles, however, the Turners continued to expand their movement and added an even greater number of communal activities for those in the German community to engage in. In addition to supporting gymnastic programs, the Turners also serviced libraries, theatrical groups, singing societies, German schools for children, and lecture series. The Turners had even introduced the idea of physical education in schools at a convention in 1880. Throughout the times in which the Turners thrived, there were five Turner halls in Scott County; three of these halls were in Davenport. The only two still standing today are both located in the city.

While neither of the Turner halls standing in Davenport today are still home to Turner societies, the legacy of the Turners themselves lives on both in history and in its influence on descendants. A tangible piece of this legacy includes a memorial stone dedicated at the Schuetzen Park Historic Site in Davenport on Sunday, September 26, 2004. Upon the dedication of this memorial, a former member of the Davenport Northwest Turners recalled memories of his time being a Turner, saying he was “really proud to be a Turner.”

Visit the Davenport Public Library for even more information on the Turners’ history and legacy in the Quad Cities!

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[1] American Turners. A century of health, 1848-1948, p.3.  SC 369 AME

[2] Davenport Turn-Gemeinde “150 Jahre,” 1852-2002.  SC 781.62 DAV

Other Sources:

Centennial souvenir book : 100th anniversary, 1871-1971, Northwest Turners, Davenport, Iowa.  SC 796.06 Cen

One hundredth anniversary, 1852-1952: 44th national convention of Central Turners, Davenport, Iowa.  SC 796.06 One

Pumroy, Eric L. and Kalja Rampalmaun. “A Sound Mind in a Sound Body.” Humanities, vol. 15, no. 2, Mar/Apr94, pp. 34-38.

Two Turner Halls Remain in Scott County,” Quad-City Times, Jan. 18. 2013.

Willard, John, “Schuetzen Park to dedicate Turners memorial – Stone serves as a reminder of legacy in the Quad Cities,” Quad-City Times, Sept. 21, 2004.

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