The late Marc Houseman was the first Washington Historical Society director. He worked at the museum from 2001 to 2021. The following is what he called "A Brief Introduction to Washington History for Museum Docents." He gave this article to new museum volunteers as a start for them to understand the history of Washington. It appears he wrote this in 2019.
By Marc Houseman, 1964-2021
The beginnings of post Native-American or “Indian” settlements in the Washington area were found in the very late 18th century. Some French and a few Spanish people lived in the area prior to this time. Early settlement was mainly found near the major streams of Dubois and St. Johns creeks. The settlement at St. Johns was mentioned in the journals of some on the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804. The same site is likely the location of the first post office in Franklin County, which was known as “St. Johns.”
A few permanent settlers were here in 1804 to greet the members of the “Voyage of Discovery.” Within a few years of this, the present site of Washington’s riverfront landing was known as “Washington Landing,” named in honor of the late President George Washington who had died in 1799.
These early settlers, mainly followers of Daniel Boone, were of English, Scotch and Irish descent though in many cases, were multi-generational Americans. Many were from the upper south and the states of Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina. Most were or were to become slave-holding families.
Among these families were William G. and Lucinda (Cowherd) Owens from Kentucky. After coming to Missouri, they lived first at Newport, the first county seat of Franklin County. They later moved to Union when the county seat was also relocated there. William Owens was the first Franklin County clerk. Owens soon purchased the property that would become the original town of Washington.
By the early 1830s, the young Owens family had moved to Washington. William was still the county clerk and traveled between Union and Washington often. On one such journey in 1834, he was shot in the back and killed by an unknown assailant, although one man was arrested and held briefly. No one was ever brought to justice for his murder. (After William's death, the property was tied up in probate court. Lucinda eventually received clear title to the town’s core. May 29, 1839, she filed a plat to establish Washington.)
Washington was fast becoming a predominantly German community by this time due to an ever-increasing number of immigrants. In 1833, a boat carrying 12 German Catholic families docked at Washington. They found two German-speaking persons already living here. One, Bernard Fricke, agreed to house the immigrants in some buildings he owned near the riverfront. These families decided to remain, having knowledge of this area due in part to the writings of Gottfried Duden. He had lived briefly near Dutzow and wrote glowing reviews of the Missouri countryside which were published in Germany. These families became the early core of Washington’s German-American community.
The influx of German immigrants continued throughout the remainder of the 19th century, bringing varying religions, arts and crafts and cultural activities. A very influential group known as the “48ers” fled Germany during the failed 1848 revolution, arriving here at mid-century. This new wave of immigrants brought many who would become Washington’s leaders politically and socially by the end of the century.
John Baptiste Busch, an older brother of Adolphus Busch of Anheuser-Busch brewery fame, began his Washington Brewery in 1854 along with two partners. John B. Busch was satisfied with providing beer to Franklin and surrounding counties whereas his more ambitious younger brother was not content until he supplied much of the country with his beverages.
Busch was about 5’6” tall and weighted nearly 350 pounds. When he died in 1894 at age 62, his home’s double doors were removed from their hinges to allow his casket to pass through.
The brewery continued following his death. During Prohibition, the brewery survived by selling ice, making and selling soda-pop. It also nearly went broke by making a then-unknown product, potato chips! The Busch sodas were fondly remembered by a few old-timers as the finest tasting soft drinks they ever had. Following Prohibition, it bottled the Busch brand of beer as its own, but brewed by Anheuser-Busch. It was also an Anheuser-Busch distributor until closing completely in 1954 after 100 years in business.
Zithers helped place Washington on the map. Beginning in 1866, a young immigrant, Franz Schwarzer, began producing the musical instruments from his home on the riverfront at Washington. Just seven short years later, Schwarzer won the coveted Gold Medal of Progress at the International Exposition in Vienna in 1873, earning international fame. To compare, Steinway & Sons received a similar gold medal at the International Exposition of 1867 in Paris.
By the time of Schwarzer’s death in 1904, over 11,000 instruments had been produced from his modest factory. The business continued making instruments through the 1920s but by that time, things considered “Germanic” were being frowned upon due to World War I.
One employee, Albert Hesse, faithfully remained working at the factory until the building was doomed to demolition by its new owner, Judge Randolph Schaper, in 1953.
For a short time in the late 1940s, there was a zither revival of sorts, due mostly to the success of a popular motion picture starring Orson Welles, “The Third Man.” Zitherist Anton Karras played and recorded “The Third Man Theme,” which topped the Billboard charts for a time and led people to dig out old zithers from attics and sent to Washington for tuning and/or repair.
Washington’s Turn Verein or Turner (Society) Hall became the center for nearly all social and cultural activities after its completion in 1866. Franz Wilhelmi started the Turner (gymnastic) Society in the 1850s. The Civil War was responsible for a hiatus of the fledgling society but it reorganized soon after the war.
Turner Hall was the societal anchor for the city, being a place for not only gymnastic events but also theatrical productions, political rallies, choral and orchestral productions, and even the occasional funeral. World War I created a noticeable downturn in any German-oriented affairs throughout the country and here, as well.
In 1932, due to declining membership, the Turn Verein was disbanded and the building at Jefferson and Third Streets was sold to the Elks Lodge. The Elks remained in the building, making several additions until December 2001. In April 2002, the City of Washington purchased the Elks complex which included not only the Turner Hall, but also the adjacent 1875 Puchta Saloon building. Local historians made a strong case for reutilization of the buildings but ultimately the historic structures were razed.
The availability of clay made Washington a natural for the production and consumption of brick and pottery. Washington’s clay pits provided so much clay, that railroad cars full of it were shipped from here to St. Louis. Dr. Benjamin Burch owned a clay bank west of Washington. Besides being a medical doctor, Burch evidently found the clay mining business to be financially beneficial.
Brick makers were making literally millions of bricks annually by the last quarter of the 19th century. In 1846, Henry Wellenkamp noted that Washington had more brick buildings that Chicago. Washington had the nickname, “Bricktown of Missouri.”
Several potters also worked locally, namely Joseph Bayer, John Glaser, the appropriately named Otto Brix, and others. Bayer pottery was often marked with his name and is quite collectible.
Transportation in Washington has consisted of water, rail and road. Ferry service on the Missouri River has been documented from as early as 1814 up until the completion of the bridge here in 1936. Steamboats served the community for decades. The completion of the Pacific Railroad to Washington in 1855, slowed and eventually eradicated much of the steamboat traffic.
The extremely important railroad has gone full circle, with passenger rail service again available thanks to Amtrak. Several things in Washington were named in honor of the railroad, including the Pacific House Hotel and the Pacific Lodge of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. The town of Pacific in Franklin County was once known as Franklin and it took the name of the railroad eventually. The “new” Highway 100 was completed in the early 1970s south of the old part of town. The original Highway 100 was Fifth Street as it passes through Washington.
Undeniably, the product that Washington is best known for is the corncob pipe. Dutch immigrant Henry Tibbe patented the process of applying a plaster-like substance to the exterior of the cobs being turned into smoking pipes.
Following the expiration of Tibbe’s patent, corncob pipe manufacturing boomed in Franklin County. Over the ensuing years, the Franklin County had ten pipe manufacturing companies. Today, Tibbe’s Missouri Meerschaum company is one of only two known corn cob pipe producers in the world.
Tibbe’s son, Anton, was responsible for bringing electricity and telephone service to Washington in the early 1890s. Anton Tibbe would eventually build three power plants, selling the first two to his competitors. The third plant was designed by architect Theodore Link of St. Louis, who also designed St. Louis’ Union Station. The origin of the corn cob pipe is believed to lie in Native American history. It took Henry Tibbe, a man of limited education and means, to invent the process that made the cobs last for an extended time.
Washington has long been known as an industrious, yet clean and orderly city. Much of this can be attributed to the strong work ethic of the early Germans and their descendants. The “Scrubby Dutch” of Washington were certainly proud of their city and their properties, an important trait that fortunately remains in evidence today.