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May 13, 2014 > History: Germans

History: Germans

By Phillip Holmes

The Germans are coming. Actually they are already here and have been for many years. In fact some of them came in pioneer days and became an important part of our heritage.

Mission San Jose was the first American pioneer business center in Washington Township. Several pioneer mercantile enterprises were located there. Leon Ehrman, S. Bachman and S. Strauss founded a firm called Strauss and Company in 1854. At first they occupied an old adobe building on the west side of Vallejo Street. They bought out the Musser and McClure Store in 1865 and moved across the street into an adobe building.

There was no change in the firm until 1868 when Leon Ehrman withdrew and his nephews Max and Solomon Ehrman were admitted to the partnership. They erected a new frame building on the site of their old adobe building on the west side of the street at a cost of $5,000 and moved in on July 4. That night they held a grand ball.

ÒIt was a magnificent affair and probably the largest ball ever held in this valley. Everybody was invited, and everybody came. Even the babies could not stay at home, and a considerable number of the drawers and shelves were used for cribs.Ó

The great earthquake in October 1868 destroyed the mission church and wrecked many of the adobe buildings around town, but the new wooden buildings survived.

Max Ehrman was killed in the great railroad accident at SimpsonÕs Station on October 14, 1869. Upon S. BachmanÕs retirement, his brother, Leopold, and Charles Adler were admitted to the partnership. Adler soon withdrew, leaving the business to Solomon Ehrman and Leopold Bachman, who continued the business under the name Ehrman & Bachman.

Solomon Ehrman married Lina Lebrecht in 1870. Their children were Alfred, Alexis, and Mattie.

Adolph Lebrecht replaced Leopold Bachman in 1880, and the firmÕs name was changed to Ehrman and Lebrecht. A social highlight of the year was the celebration of the fifth wedding anniversary of Sol Ehrman and his wife, Lina. Adolph, who was SolomonÕs brother-in-law, served as postmaster from 1887 to 1889. Fire destroyed the company store in 1884 and 1894. The men decided that was enough, so they built the brick building that is still there.

Nicholas and Sophie Bergmann came from Germany about 1850 and reached Mission San Jose in 1860. Nicholas built an extensive carriage and blacksmith shop which he operated for many years. He and Sophia raised 12 children. Their daughter, Florence, married Allan Walton, a Centerville pharmacist and civic leader.

Joseph Sunderer came from Germany in 1867 and began a life-long career of making shoes and boots for settlers. He bought his home and shop on Vallejo Street but lost it in the fire of 1884. He rebuilt his home and lost it again in the fire of 1894. He rebuilt his home and this time it lasted. Joseph and his wife, Rosa, raised four children. Joseph served as a school trustee, pound master, deputy constable, fire chief and was the unofficial town mayor.

August Hermann was born in Germany and was the only one of 11 children to survive the Black Plague. He came to the United States with his friend Joseph Sunderer and worked as a chef in San Francisco. He saved money to bring his mother and sister to California, but they died from the Plague before they could sail. August came to Mission San Jose and opened the Milwaukie Brewery. He married Mary Isabella Rogan and they bought an old hotel, but it burned in the 1884 fire. August and Isabella died at an early age. Their four children were cared for by the Dominican nuns. Major donations by family descendents made possible the reconstruction of the Mission San Jose Church.

Johann Georg Ziegenfuss was born in Germany in 1826 and came to California about 1852. He found his way to Mission San Jose where he established a butcher shop. He and Katherine Tierney were married at the Mission in 1857. Their son, Thomas, worked in his fatherÕs butcher shop and delivered meat to customers in a horse drawn wagon. In bad weather he rode the horse and packed the meat on his back and behind his saddle. At times he had to ford streams because there were few bridges.

Archbishop Alemany made a tour of Europe in 1867 that included Germany. One of his recruits was Father Peter Kaiser, a priest of the Diocese of Limburg. He came to California and was named pastor of Mission San JoseÕs St. Joseph parish in 1878. He restored the mission grape vines and olive trees to make them profitable.

Sister Pia (Mary Backes) was born in Germany in 1852. She came to America with her parents and was educated in a parochial school in Philadelphia. She received the Dominican habit and her new name, Sister Maria Pia, in 1876. She came to California to help meet the need for German-speaking sisters and became the Superior of the Dominican congregation.

At that time, Mission San Jose was a town of some 800 people and six saloons. She purchased the vacant St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary building and adjacent land and founded a school called the Josephinum. Sisters Felicitas Weiss, Josepha, Sailer and Bartholomea were the first to work there but were soon joined by others.

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