The Turners

American Turners Vorwaerts 734 Lexington StreetTraining Classes

The name ‘Turner’ is derived from the German word for ‘gymnast’.

The movement began in Germany and was started by Frederick Ludwig Jahn (1778-1852) or ‘Vater Jahn’. He believed in physical strength and well rounded ‘Germans’. His vision was a ‘united’ nation of strong heroes. He began to train future soldiers to defend the ‘Vaterland’. He inaugurated the Turnlied or Turner song. The earliest Turner songs were written prior to 1813, which was the year of the Turnsperre (Turn lock).

The purpose of the Turner movement, besides the physical aspects, were patriotic and martial and so too was Jahn’s first book, “Wehrlieder” (military songs), which contained twelve songs. The songs were used by those that followed Jahn into battle.

Turners in America

Prior to the arrival of the 48ers in the U.S., there was no real Turner Lyrics in the U.S. probably because there was no real ‘fire’ in the hearts of the men who had immigrated real causes. Liberty and the abolition of slavery were issues down the road, not at that time. Language was another issue. The tunes definitely sound different in German and in English.

Some of the early leaders and followers of Jahn in the U.S. were Carl Beck, Carl Follen and Franz Lieber. Beck and Follen arrived in New York in 1824. Beck taught Latin at Round Hill School in Massachusetts and directed the building of their Gymansium. Follen also taught, but at Harvard, the subjects of Church History and Ethics. He also organized a Gymnasium.

Francis Lieber arrived in New York in 1827. He went to Boston and took a position as a public Gymnasium superintendent.

For the next two decades, the movement in the U.S. waned. The men who introduced the movement assimilated. The Jahn system of gymnastics however, did change the American education system. Physical activity was now part of the curriculum. The patriotic/military undertones of the Turners did not, at this time, prevail in the U.S. One of the main reasons is that there were too little involved in the program. This was about the change.

At the same time, the movement was changing in their native land of Germany. The Jahn model made way for that of Carl Friedrich Koch, who emphasized the psychological, physical and educational importance of gymnastics. He also began to separate the children and the adults. The Prussian government, under this model, permitted ‘Turning’ in the higher schools beginning in 1838. The political aspect of the Turners were not, however, dead. Many major cities in Germany formed Turnerbunds. Several conventions were held and there was a split in the political views, which essentially created two groups. Subsequent revolutionary actions and revolts caused the government to impose penalties. The result was the revolutionary Turners leaving the Fatherland. Another great wave of immigration began in 1848, when the 48ers, or the enlightened ones, began arriving on the shores in the U.S. Most left their native land to avoid the penalties being imposed by the German government. Thousands of 48ers arrived and put the ‘fire’ back in the movement. Many wished to continue the work they began in Germany. In fact, many wanted to return to Germany to fight in the revolution that would finally overthrow the monarchies of Germany. For those, their dreams were realized in 1870. They were basically revolutionaries that despised all forms of social, political and religious oppression.

The movement in the U.S. gained momentum and grew in leaps and bounds from 1848 to 1851. In Baltimore, in 1849, Die sozial-demokratische Turngemeide was established. The beginning occurred at the corner of Liberty and Saratoga Streests when Carl Giller, Conrad Becker, Louis Binderwald and Adam Geyer met and founded the Turnverein[1]. Their membership in 1850 was 278 members. The American Turners acted as a social, athletic and political center for German Marylanders.

The first ‘Turnfest’ or convention was held in Philadelphia on October 1, 1851 and Der sozialistische Turnerbund was established as was the Turnzeitung (Turner newspaper), which reported at that time, 1072 members within 22 societies. A national gathering was held in Baltimore in 1852.

There were two Turner Lyricists who stand out in Baltimore history, Carl Heinrich Schnauffer and Johann Stranbenmüller. Both used the Baltimore Wecker to print their lyrics.

The original motto of the Turners, that promulgated by Jahn was ‘Frisch, Frei, Fröhlich, Fromm” (Fresh, free, happy and pious). The U.S. had a tough time with the ‘fromm’, which was eventually changed to ‘Frisch, froh, frei’. The motto was again changed at the convention of the Nordamerikanische Turnerbund in 1880. The new motto, ‘Frisch, Frei, Stark, Treu” (Fresh, free, strong and faithful). Many didn’t like the term ‘stark’ primarily because they felt it put too much emphasis on brawn and not brain. It was around this time, that the movement again, lost some of its’ ‘fire’.

The Turners became more politically active as the struggles in the U.S. increased, namely those involving slavery, Nativism[2], Knownothingism[3] and Temperance. In 1855, the Turners declared their strong opposition to slavery by passing a resolution at the convention that year, making it one of the key principles of the Turners. The Baltimore Turners supported the resolution. There were enough Turners fighting in the Civil War that many regiments were comprised in whole or part of Turners. It wasn’t long after the bombardment of Fort Sumpter that a company of Baltimore Turners went to Washington and offered their support. With the company of Washington and Georgetown Turners, they became one of the first corps of volunteers. The Civil War did take its’ toll on the numbers of Turners, many off to battle. In 1860, Baltimore was made the ‘Vorwort’ (Executive Committee) of the Turnerbund. It was at this time that the Baltimore ‘Vorwort’ urged all members to cast their vote for the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln. It was also at this time, April 20, 1861, that mobs broke into the gymnasium, then located at 300 West Pratt Street and destroyed the equipment and burned the papers. At this same time, the offices of the Baltimore Wecker, where the Turnzeitung was printed, was destroyed.

During the latter part of the Civil War, the New York and Baltimore societies requested a convention, which was held in Washington, DC in 1865. During this meeting, they adopted a new name, Nordamerikanische Turnerbund. The struggles led to the founding of new gymnastic organizations in Baltimore, namely the ‘Turnverein Vorwaerts’ in 1867, the ‘Atlantic Turnverein’ in 1872 and the ‘Gymnastische Pyramiden Club in 1882. Over the next decade they grew rapidly. Numbers during that time: 1871-10,200 members in 148 groups; 1880-13,000 members in 186 societies and in 1893 (the height of their membership)-42,000 members in 316 societies. In 1887, the ‘Atlantic Turnverein’ rejoined the ‘Social Democratic Turnverein’ after being independent for fifteen years. The new group was called the ‘Baltimore Turngemeinde’, which dissolved in 1888 and reorganized as the ‘Germania Turnverein’. Founded on October 9, 1889, it named as its’ first president, Karl Hoffmann. It was a member of the North American Gymnastic Association. They performed in many Baltimore events. They purchased a building at No. 9-11 Post-Office Avenue and began gym classes for boys and girls, as well as adults. In 1894 it had 180 members. The facility and records of the ‘Germania Turnverein’ were destroyed in the Baltimore Fire of 1904. They had no official meeting place at this time and used different facilities including the Fifth Ward Republican Club, and Darley Park Dance Hall. Membership dropped to approximately 100. In 1909, they found a building that met their purposes and purchased 1846 North Gay Street, Germania Hall. Membership rose to about 300.

As for the other club, the Turnverein Vorwaerts (Forward), it was founded by seven members of the original ‘Social-Democratic Turnverein’. One of their founders, L. Wode, was the step-son of Arnold S. Jahn, the son of Frederick Jahn. The constitution was adopted on June 30, 1867. They were ‘politically neutral’. They did believe in their culture and felt that German should be used and cultivated; scientific and cultural lectuers should be part of the program and were in fact held once per week, with large attendances (the first one held on November 9, 1873 and continued until 1917). All of the lectures were free and open to the public. The first president was Emil Dapprich. They too performed publicly many times. The ‘Vorwaerts’ first headquarters and where it remained for twenty five years, was on Fayette Street between Harrison and Frederick Streets. The ‘Vorwaerts’ were also serious contributors to the welfare of the less fortunate, contributing regularly to several philanthropic causes including the American Teachers Seminar in Milwaukee; the German Orphan Home, etc. They were incorporated on February 18, 1868 and at the same time the ‘Vorwaerts Liedertafel’ (Singing Society) was formed. Richard Ortmann was the director of the society for a time. This club also started a library and a drawing school in 1869.

It should be stated that in 1875, Heinrich Lohmann was elected speaker of the Vorwaerts and he remained in this position until his death in 1889. He along with Richard Ortmann were named ‘honorary members’ in 1870. Heinrich Lohmann was a 48er and was also one of the men that volunteered his services at the outbreak of the Civil War. He was wounded. His ashes, six years after his death, were sealed into the cornerstone of Turnhalle. Turnhalle was purchased in January 1895 at 734 W. Lexington Street and the cornerstone was laid on July 4, 1895.

The Turners were successful with regards to their efforts to introduce the physical culture to the Baltimore City Schools, which was accomplished in February of 1895. The first director of Physical Culture for the Baltimore Schools was C.F. Emil Schulz, a member of the ‘Vorwaerts’.

One of the things that held the groups together is the Turnfest, which was an athletic competition brining the athletes from all over the country to compete. They took place annually before the Civil War and resumed after the war, however, only biennially. Sometime in the 1880s this was changed to once every four years, primarily due to costs associated with staging such a large event. There was a Women’s Auxiliary, founded in 1919, that assisted in raising funds. Further financial complications ensued with prohibition and the Great Depression, causing many societies to lose their facilities and to close their doors.

The Turners experienced further turmoil leading up to World War I, when their position was to remain neutral. Once the U.S. entered the war, in order to calm the public’s growing concern, they began calling the organization the American Gymnastic Union and issuing all annual reports in English instead of German. The ‘Vorwaerts’ proved their patriotic spirit by holding a gymnastic exhibition in April 1918, with all proceeds being turned over to the American Red Cross.

The Turnfests were suspended through the war years of 1941 thru 1948. During this traumatic time in U.S. history, many members found themselves suspect of pro-Nazi activity and under investigation by the U.S. Government. They again, officially changed their name from the American Turnerbund to the American Turners (this was due in part to another organization, the German-American Bund [4]. Again, membership declined.

The post-war years did see a revival when membership rose to 25,000 by 1950. Another big change came during the Convention in 1950, when their previous form of leadership, the National Executive Committee, which prior to 1950 had selected its members from the city that would serve as the national headquarters, was changed to a National Council with representatives from each of the eight regions at the time. The highest offices were elected offices and had a two term limitation.

The 1960s began another downturn, many left due to restrictions placed on high school and college athletes to only participate in school affiliated programs. Many people were leaving the city for the suburbs. Some Turner Societies moved with them and some disbanded. The national membership in the early 1990s was 13,000 in 60 societies.

Their website, today states that they have 54 Societies in 13 districts. They still emphasize ‘strong body, sound mind’ principles. They now host annual competitions in gymnastics, golf, bowling, softball, volleyball and other cultural activities.

The American Turner website also indicates that Baltimore is in their Mid-Atlantic district.

Regardless of the beginnings and the political struggles associated with the Turners, they benefited the United States in multiple ways:

  • They began a system of Gymnastics, which actually laid the groundwork for American athletics.

  • They helped the German immigrants obtain respect.

  • They provided a defense for the defenseless in unsafe times (Knownothings).

  • They were on the ‘front lines’ in the abolition of slavery, passing that resolution in 1855, and remaining loyal to their cause.

  • They stood for the rights of the individual. They believed in freedom of thought, press, etc., and often provided the necessary ‘checks and balances’ in our society.

  • They were instrumental, during the early years, of pushing to have the German language taught in the public school system.

  • In 1866 at the persistence of the Turners, the Normal College of the American Gymnastic Union was formed as a training facility for physical education teachers. [5]

Augustus Prahl said it best in the closing of his paper, the History of the Germany Gymnastic Movement of Baltimore, “In his ideal striving the Turner was not concerned with the duration of his work but rather with the consideration of whether he was contributing towards a worthy cause. The worthy cause was the welfare of the United States first of all, and humanity as a whole.


The German-American Turner Lyrics, by Professor M.D. Learned, Ph.D

American Turners, processed by Gregory Mobley, 2002

History of the German Gymnastic Movement of Baltimore, by Augustus J. Prahl

The American Turners


National office: 1127 E. Kentucky St. PO Box 4216 Louisville, KY 40204

[1] According to paper written by Augustus Prahl, The History of the German Gymnastic Movement, for the Society for the History of Germans in Maryland.

[2] : a policy of favoring native inhabitants as opposed to immigrants ; 2: the revival or perpetuation of an indigenous culture especially in opposition to acculturation [Merriam-Webster]

[3] capitalized K&N : the principles and policies of the Know-Nothings; 2: the condition of knowing nothing or desiring to know nothing or the conviction that nothing can be known with certainty especially in religion or morality ; 3often capitalized K&N : a mid-20th century political attitude characterized by anti-intellectualism, exaggerated patriotism, and fear of foreign subversive influences [Merriam-Webster]

[4] The German American Bund or German Federation was an American Nazi organization established in the 1930s. Its main goal was to promote a favorable view of Nazi Germany.

[5] Initially called the Turnlehrerseminar, the school was originally in New York City from 1866-1870 and in Chicago from 1870-1871, back to New York in 1872-1874, to Milwaukee from 1875-1899 and finally in 1907 to Indianapolis, where the name change occurred. In 1941, it merged with the Indiana University.