Forging Iron in Downtown Baltimore The number two U.S. port of entry for German immigrants keeps hints of the old ways - By Walter Pfaeffle
A family-owned blacksmith shop using equipment from the horse-and-buggy days achieves landmark status. Over at the Zion Church, services are held in German every Sunday. An active German heritage society annually recognizes outstanding achievements. Could interest in Germany be growing in Baltimore?
The unfinished walls, rough brick flooring and ancient equipment are reminiscent of times gone by. And well they might be. The G. Krug & Son ornamental iron works was founded two centuries ago and some of the repair equipment in this West Saratoga Street factory is almost as old as the shop itself.
Now as then, its coal-fired forges pound out classic ornamental ironwork - from the George Washington Monument in Baltimore's historic district to the Belgian ambassador's residence in Washington, D.C.
There is no machine tool maker for ornamental iron. "When the equipment breaks down, we take it apart and fix it ourselves," said Peter Krug, 48. He points to a hand shear made in 1890 that cuts metal into small pieces.
Peter and his 52-year-old brother Stephen have been running the business since their father, Theodore F. Krug, retired to Pennsylvania in the 1980s.
Each year in November, the German Society of Maryland honors a native of German descent who has made substantial contributions to the state and the country. For 2007, the society's current president, Brigitte Fessenden, recommended the Krugs.
The Krug firm was actually founded in the 1840s as a blacksmith shop by Andrew Merker, an immigrant from Alsace who passed it on to Gustav Krug in 1873. Gustav was the son of bookbinder Kaspar Krug of Reutlingen in the state of Württemberg.
Most of Krug's workers were blacksmiths recruited from Germany where they had learned to make lavish scrollwork in the rococo style. Since virtually all the blacksmith shops that clustered around the old Lexington Market are long gone, the survival of Krug & Son was by no means assured.
Back in the 1980s, the city considered razing the Krug site as part of an urban renewal plan and replacing it with a parking garage. Through letters and personal contacts, Theodore Krug collected signatures from supporters even though no concrete plans existed.
In 1986, his efforts paid off. The Krug building was declared a landmark and cannot be demolished. "There is hardly a building in Baltimore that doesn't contain something we made, even if it is only a nail," wrote Theodore in the official Baltimore landmark book.
For nearly 200 years, the book goes on to say, artisans here have hammered out practical and ornamental iron works that still grace many local landmarks. These include the Ottobein Methodist Church, the Basilica of the Assumption, the Washington Monument, the Zion Church, Johns Hopkins Hospital and the Baltimore Zoo.
Today Stephen manages the business and Peter, until recently, worked the iron along with other men in the shop. They have about 10 employees, down from 25 a few years ago.
The Krug family also has books from their relatives written in German that were brought to Baltimore along with many tools including an anvil that is still being used today. These books contain examples of decorative iron works in the neo-baroque style that these smiths worked into many of the ironwork designs that were used in Baltimore.
But in spite of their German roots and the fact that their mother came from Germany in the early 1950s, neither Stephen nor Peter speak German. Nor are they members of the German Society that honored them or any other of the many German clubs that have survived two world wars.
"The situation for Germans was particularly difficult after World War I when anti-German sentiment was widespread, and, to a lesser extent during and after the Second World War, when you wouldn't necessarily want to advertise your 'Germanness,'" Stephen said.
Of Maryland's 5.6 million people, nearly 900,000 or 15.6 percent have German roots, according to estimates. On a national scale, 43 million Americans trace their heritage to Germany, with the first settlers landing in Jamestown in 1608.
The 400th anniversary of the first Germans in America will be celebrated this April at historic Williamsburg, Virginia. German President Horst Köhler is expected to attend.
Founded in 1783, the German Society of Maryland today aims at preserving the heritage, language and traditions through educational and other programs, and to help make German-Americans in the state more of a community.
"It's not an easy undertaking," conceded Brigitte Fessenden of Esslingen near Stuttgart. "Originally the Society was to help German immigrants find jobs and adjust to life in the new world. Today's immigrants speak much better English, and therefore adjust much easier on their own."
Around 1900, owing to its unique location in one of America's largest immigration ports, more than 30 congregations in Baltimore had Sunday services in German, and German remained their only language of preaching and teaching until the First World War.
Prior to 1917, almost a million dollars was collected for German and Austrian war widows and orphans, most of it by the Zion Church, according to "Zion in Baltimore," the Church's own published history.
The church, a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, is itself a landmark with a tradition of more than 250 years. Founded by German immigrants in 1755, the Zion Church still offers services in German and English every Sunday. Besides maintaining a German language program, the church is also the venue for the German Society's annual awards ceremonies.
The constitution and by-laws of 1953 require services in both German and English "according to the traditions inherited from our forefathers." Pastor Holger Roggelin, an import from Germany, says the Zion congregation couldn't find an American who is sufficiently bilingual, so he asked the Bishop of Silesia for help. "All my predecessors were born in Germany," said Roggelin, who is on loan from another church.
Some 40-50 people attend the German Service every Sunday, more on holidays. The church also operates the Deutsche Sprachschule, a German language school founded in 1929. It meets every Saturday. Nearly 100 students attend, Roggelin says.
"Promoting German culture through teaching the language and musical and other cultural events is part of our assignment," he said. "And it's surprising how many German speaking people suddenly pop up."
Fessenden, the German Society president, also believes interest in the German language is growing which seems to contradict official statistics. Some of this interest might be related to immigration, she suggests.
From the early 1800s through 1914, about five million German immigrants were processed through Ellis Island in New York, and two million through the Baltimore port, making Baltimore the second-largest embarkation port for Germans in America.
- Walter Pfaeffle is a German-born journalist who lives in New York.