Immigrant Entrepreneurship Panels at the Society of German-American Studies’ 38th Annual Symposium

The Immigrant Entrepreneurship project was the focus of two panels at the Society of German-American Studies’ 38th Annual Symposium, held in Milwaukee on April 10–12, 2014. The first panel, chaired by Uwe Spiekermann of the German Historical Institute, included a contribution from Walter Kamphoefner of Texas A&M University, “The German Component to American Industrialization,” adapted from his contextual essay for Volume II of the project, which examined how knowledge and skills transfer from Germany shaped the business sectors in which German-American entrepreneurs were active in the mid-nineteenth century United States. The second presentation was an overview of “German-Jewish Financiers and American Economic Development, 1865–1945,” by Atiba Pertilla of the German Historical Institute, a synthesis of material from several biographical articles, including pieces on Joseph Seligman, Jacob Schiff, and Marcus Goldman, that followed the business activities of their successor firms into the Great Depression years and World War II. Finally, the paper “Keeping It in the Family: The Schoellkopfs and Serial Entrepreneurship across Generations” by Benjamin Schwantes, also of the German Historical Institute, examined the career of Buffalo entrepreneur Jacob Frederick Schoellkopf, who founded and oversaw, with his descendants, a wide variety of businesses in fields as varied as flour milling, dye manufacturing, and hydroelectric power.

The second panel, chaired by the GHI’s Benjamin Schwantes, included three speakers who focused on different aspects of German immigrant entrepreneurship in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Todd Barnett of the University of Missouri-Columbia discussed St. Louis businessmen Eberhard Anheuser and Adolphus Busch, explaining how Anheuser initially acquired St. Louis’s Bavarian Brewery to settle a debt and was then forced to turn to brewery supplier Augustus Busch for help, initiating the creation of their famous partnership. The second speaker, Paul Fessler from Dordt College in Iowa, focused on entrepreneur August Schell and discussed how he built a multi-generational brewing enterprise in rural New Ulm, Minnesota, during the second half of the nineteenth century through connections with the local American Turner society. The final paper by Randall Donaldson of Loyola University in Baltimore, Maryland, traced the business lifecycle of Potthast Bros. Furniture, a firm founded in the late nineteenth century that focused primarily on building reproductions of period furniture and was later shut down in the mid-1970s in the face of rising costs, declining sales, and scarcity of skilled craftsmen. Each presentation was followed by a lively discussion session in which the audience posed many interesting questions to the two groups of panelists.