Danube Swabians in Sangamon County

The Kohlrus family in 1943:
standing back, left to right: Louie, Anna, Teresa, Minnie, Frank, Walter;
sitting middle: parents Theresa and Josef; sitting bottom, left to right: John, Josephine, Eddie (courtesy Kohlrus family)

In February 1903, the SS Pennland docked at Philadelphia, offloading scores of immigrants. One of the newcomers walking off the ship that day was Josef Kohlrus, a 31-year-old miner from Central Hungary.  With $14 in his pocket, Josef’s final destination was Newark, N.J. The following year, his wife Theresa Hoffmann and their children, Franz “Frank”, Alois “Louis” and Maria “Mary” (all born in Hungary), and Josef’s brother Wenzel arrived in New Jersey.

The family settled in Sangamon County around 1905, and Josef (1872-1963) went to work in the coal mines of Springfield. Perhaps mining was in his blood – the family name Kohlrus (Kohlruss in the original German variant) means “coal soot.” In due time, more of Josef’s siblingsAnton, Karl, Tomas, Rosa, Maria and Theresa – immigrated to Sangamon County, too.

The family was part of an influx of Danube Swabians (Donauschwaben in German), ethnic Germans from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, who arrived in the U.S. and in Sangamon County during the early 20th century. They had led a predominantly agrarian lifestyle in Europe, along with unemployment, compulsory military service and ethnic conflict. Even though they faced economic hardships in the U.S., they still were better off working for meager wages as coal miners in central Illinois.

In Sangamon County, for obvious reasons, Danube Swabians often lived where coal mining was the primary occupation. Virden, Pawnee and Auburn all had minor influxes of these immigrants during the early 20th century. In Springfield, where coal mining was an employment mainstay, families such as Albert, Buchinger, Fiaush, Kuntz, Pamer, Pichler, Tiemeyer, Runkel and a dozen more represented the bulk of the Danube Swabians in the county.

The earliest arrivals to the U.S. tended to be single men, who typically became seasonal miners. In Springfield, Eastern European immigrants were concentrated on the southeast side of town, so they primarily worked in mines located in that area: the Jefferson Coal Company (“Brewerton Mine”), the Woodside Mine (Peabody No. 53) or the Capital Mine (Peabody No. 57). Danube Swabian women maintained their traditional roles as housewives and homemakers.

Danube Swabian regions in central Europe. This map has been edited to place Belgrade more accurately and to adjust the Banat region. (William Cellini Jr.)

The Austro-Hungarian Empire covered a vast section of Central and Eastern Europe prior to War I, taking in Austria and Hungary, of course, but also the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro. It even extended into portions of present-day Italy, Romania, Poland, Ukraine and Moldova.  With a population exceeding 48 million, it was exceptionally diverse.

Included were Danube Swabians, who got that name because they lived along the Danube River. Only a portion, however, actually hailed from the Duchy of Swabia (today the German states of Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg).  Danube Swabian family lines extend back to the late 1600s, when their ancestors obtained permission from the Hapsburg crown to enter Austria from Germany in order to re-populate the Danube valley after Ottoman Turks were expelled from Austria.

Settlements occurred in three waves.  Sangamon County’s Danube Swabians tended to be descendants of colonists from the third wave, which took place in the 1780s.

Some Danube Swabians, especially those living near Hungary’s Bakony Forest, were miners because the Bakony Forest area contained manganese, bauxite and other minerals.  Coal miners in Sangamon County who came from this region often required little training, as they were experienced workers from the moment they entered local mines. Josef Kohlrus and his wife both were born in Veszprém County, an area of the Bakony Forest.

German was the common language spoken by all the settlements, but the families also spoke a dialect—schwowisch, a blend of southwestern German mixed with regional vocabulary words.   Socially, the majority of the Danube Swabian population lived a Catholic-centric lifestyle, although there were families that attended Lutheran Congregations.

Most of Springfield’s Danube Swabian immigrants were Catholic and their social lives tended to revolve around their neighborhood. Many Danube Swabian families moved into the neighborhood around Sacred Heart Church during the early 1900s.  St. Barbara Church, Springfield’s Slovenian Catholic parish, also saw an increase in German-speaking members when Danube Swabians moved into the neighborhood.

Statistically, the 1910 Federal Census counted 851 Austrians and 460 Hungarians in Sangamon County. However, the total – 1,311 Austro-Hungarian residents of the county –Slovenians, Croatians, Slovaks and Serbians were also labeled either Austrian or Hungarian. As a result, the genuine number of local Danube Swabians is difficult to determine.

Kohlrus & Sons grocery, 1512 N. 15th St., undated (Sangamon Valley Collection)

To keep his children out of the local mines, Josef Kohlrus (his first name was usually Anglicized as “Joseph”) went into the grocery business. He opened a store at 1512 N. 15th St. in the early 1930s.  The elder Kohlrus knew nothing about the trade, but he was determined to see that his sons, Louie, Walter, Eddie and John, could “see the sunshine” while they made their livings. The eldest son, Frank, never worked in the store, but Josef’s son-in-law Michael Rock did so briefly.

The Kohlrus grocery was in operation from the early 1930s until 1968, when the brothers formed Kohlrus Catering Service.  They used the old store building as a warehouse and an office for the catering company.  Aside from standard American fare, the Kohlruses made chicken paprika, sauerkraut and other specialties native to their family’s homeland.  The brothers took pride in their business, and they ran it well, “serving home-style food to much larger than home-style crowds”, as Sandy Baksys  reported in a December 1977  Illinois Times article.

During World War II, many Danube Swabians served with the German armed forces.  After Germany’s loss, the communist government of Hungary sent thousands of German-speaking citizens back to Germany – including many Danube Swabians, despite their centuries of residence in Hungary.

By the 1960s, the Danube Swabian community in central Illinois also was being diluted, although for far more benevolent reasons. Coal mines shut down, children married out of the Swabian community, and families who once attended Sacred Heart or St. Barbara’s churches gradually moved away. The new generations spoke little, if any, schwowisch dialect. As a result, by the 1980s, a vibrant Donauschwaben culture ceased to exist in Sangamon County.  Kohlrus Catering Service closed in 2001, when the last of the brothers retired.

Contributor: William Cellini Jr.

Hat tip: To Dylan Shomidie (Somogyi), for an on-the-ground report from Hungary on Danube Swabians in history and today. See Comments below.

More information:

*Genealogical and other information is available in The German immigrants from Veszprém County, Hungary: A guide to finding your German ancestors from Veszprém County, Hungary, their history, culture and origins, by E. Chrisbacher (2005).

*A website, People Forgotten in History: The Donauschwaben, provides a compact history of the Danube Swabians.

Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society.


This entry was posted in Business, Swabians. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Danube Swabians in Sangamon County

  1. Ron Willey says:

    Thank you for sharing this informative and fascinating article. Despite growing up in Springfield this is the first time I’ve heard of Danube Swabians.

  2. NANCY CHAPIN says:

    Received two copies of this article. One was labeled the Kohlrus Family and the other the Danube Swabians in Sangamon County. You might consider combining the titles.

  3. editor says:

    Nancy: That’s deliberate. The Kohlrus family entry is what I call a “stub,” an entry that redirects the reader to the main Danube Swabians entry. It’s designed so that someone looking through the SangamonLink index will know there’s an entry that has substantial information on the Kohlruses. It’s an extra entrance point to the encyclopedia.

    It’s a little tricky to combine entry titles. For one thing, SangamonLink’s index has three pages, A-J, K-O and P-Z. So “Danube Swabians” would be indexed on the first page and “Kohlrus family” on the second. Where do I list the entry for maximum visibility? (If I put the same entry, with different titles, on both pages, I’d still need two entries to do it, and you’d still get notified twice.)

    SangamonLink subscriptions are a relatively new feature of the site, and it’s true that I never thought about subscribers getting two separate notices when I post both a main entry and a stub. But I still think stubs are useful features.

    Thanks for the careful reading.

  4. My mother Josephine Marie was the youngest daughter of Joseph and Theresa Hoffman Kohlrus. I think the family built their home at 1512 Pennsylvania Ave., and that might be the reason the Kohlrus grocery store was located a few blocks away. Mom went to work in the store after she graduated St. Joseph’s Grade School at age 15. She used to talk about having to lift 100 bags of grain–don’t know how she did this, since she was such a small woman. I believe her help during WWII would have been essential to keeping the store going, since I think Louie, Eddie and Johnny all served in the Coast Guard during the war.
    Mom also was the child living longest with her immigrant parents on Pennsylvania Ave., until she married Dad at age 33 in 1952. She met my father Vince, a Lithuanian immigrant, after he moved into an apartment right across the street. At the same time, Mom was working at the Sangamo Electric plant just a few blocks from her parents’ home. So, you can see how important the neighborhood was to all aspects of life in Springfield.

  5. Michelle Clay says:

    Thank you so much for filling in some blanks of our family tree. My paternal grandmother was Teresa Clay née Kohlrus. She’s in the photo associated with the article. I am grateful for this article and the book references .

  6. Kathleen Hayes says:

    Louis Kohlrus was my grandfather; my mother, Margaret Kohlrus Hayes, is the 3rd of his 5 children (all still alive) and in their 70s and 80s. I have fond memories of visiting Grandpa Louie at his grocery store when I was a tot in the early 70s. The story our family tells about why Josef Kohlruss left Hungary involves his theft of a pig with which to feed his family, and his subsequent arrest for the theft. I’m not sure how much of that has morphed from the original set of circumstances now, 117 years later. Thank you so much for helping to fill in some of my maternal family history.

    • Kathleen, I used to run in to your mom, Marge, at St. Joseph’s Home when I went to visit a friend. I think I might also have been your babysitter a few times when I was a teen. Back then, if you were 13 or 14 and a trusted Kohlrus female relative, you were good enough to be left alone with a two-month-old baby! I liked my Uncle Louie, your grandfather a lot–he seemed like the older “responsible” brother of the family, including at the grocery store. He also helped my mom Josephine a couple of times that I remember. I once interviewed your Uncle Joe when he was Griffin H.S. band teacher/leader.

      • Kathleen Hayes says:

        Sandy, yep, my mom just retired from St. Joseph’s Home in September. And you are correct; you did babysit me a few times (that would have been late 60s; I was born in 67), she says.

  7. My mom Josephine, the youngest Kohlrus girl, lived with her parents in the family home at 1512 Pennsylvania Ave. until she married at 33 in 1952. She worked at the “Kohlrus & Sons” grocery store from age 15, when she graduated from St. Joseph’s Grade School, and probably was one of the family females who helped keep the store going during the critical WWII years, when her brothers Louie, Eddie, and maybe Johnny were in the service. Mom was a small woman, but told me she used to have to move 100 pound bags of grain at the store. At the time she met our Lithuanian immigrant father, Vince in 1952, she was working a few blocks away from the family home at Sangamo Electric and owned her own car–a big accomplishment. But it’s amazing for us today to see how much life happened on the family and neighborhood scale back then. The Kohlrus store was only a few blocks east down Converse from the family home. And Mom only met Dad because he moved into an apartment right across the street.

  8. editor says:

    Editor: Coincidentally, when this entry was posted, former Springfield resident Dylan Shomidie, a linguistic anthropologist with the Fulbright program and a descendant of Danube Swabians, was in Hungary working on a project to document dialects of the Swabian Germans. Shomidie (ancestral name Somogyi) read SangamonLink’s entry on the Danube Swabians via the Springfield Memories Facebook page and submitted two lengthy comments there. This comment is a lightly edited combination of Shomidie’s Facebook responses. Our thanks to him for his valuable additions to the history of Danube Swabians in central Illinois.

    The Danube Swabians (Donauschwaben) in Sangamon County came mainly from Veszprém County, Hungary. Many came to live in the area around 17th, 18th streets. They attended the Catholic churches of St. Patrick on MLK and South Grand and St. Barbara, which was on 15th and Laurel.

    They are a unique ethnic group that migrated to Hungary from Germany in the 18th century after the Turkish wars. They spoke a variety of German dialects that also had many Hungarian loanwords in their vocabulary. After living in Hungary for centuries they also intermarried with local Hungarians and other Slavic groups to some extent.

    Most of the Swabians migrated to Springfield area around 1900. My great-grandfather Frank Shomidie (Ferenc Somogyi in Hungarian) migrated with his family to Springfield around 1909. His sister, Fannie, was married to Frank Kohlrus (1883-1943). Frank and his brothers/cousins are the ancestors of all the Kohlrus family members in Springfield. I have several old photos and documents, including an early 20th-century framed portrait of Frank and Fannie’s son who passed away in 1911.

    The villages they came from are mainly Úrkút, Magyarpolány, Ajka, and Városlőd. Right now I am living in Hungary and conducting research on these villages as part of an anthropology research project. I am specifically documenting the German dialects of the Swabians, which are unfortunately disappearing in recent times. There are still Kohlrus family members here in the area. I have seen some recent gravestones in the local cemeteries. Many people in Springfield have Schwabian roots and do not recognize this connection to Hungary. There are still relatives of these people here in Hungary. Another last name is “Denk,” which is in Springfield, and I have met a woman here who is related to that family. It’s quite interesting!
    The original spelling of my last name, Shomidie, is “Somogyi” with the similar pronunciation in Hungarian “Sho-mo-dee”. Many Danube Swabians, especially those with Hungarian or Slavic last names had their names changed after immigrating to America. This was common for many immigrants of the time, especially coming from Eastern/Central Europe with very foreign or strange-looking surnames. Both first and last names were Anglicized. For instance, my great-grandfather was Ferenc Somogyi, Ferenc is Hungarian for “Frank”. Around the turn of the century, many migrated to Springfield, as well to Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Canada. Many people in Springfield still have relatives here in Hungary or in those other places. I have even been able to track down my own cousins here in the village of my great-grandfather.
    The area here in Hungary where they stem from actually kind of reminds me of central Illinois. It is definitely more hilly, but overall I could see why the Swabians made Illinois their home. The Swabian villages are spread out through the countryside and consist usually of a local church and a number of dwelling houses, surrounded by farmland and hills. The houses often have gardens, with chickens, sheep and other livestock residing next to the home. The Danube Swabians also have their own cuisine and traditional dress style. The cuisine is hearty and very good. Many of the ingredients include a variety of meats like poultry, pork, and beef, as well as vegetables like peppers, potatoes, cabbage, onions, and carrots. There are many pork dishes, soups and stews.

    These villages still contain speakers of the German dialects. It is interesting to note that almost each village has its own version of German, as each village was populated by people from different areas of Germany (in this area usually from southwestern Germany). These dialects retain many elements of archaic 17th/18th century German regional vernacular and grammar. To the modern German speaker, these dialects can sound like their own distinct languages they are so different.

    There are many Swabian communities throughout Hungary as well as in neighboring Romania and Serbia, though these groups usually originated from various regions of Germany. They are all commonly referred to generally as “Danube Swabians” because, it has been told, as they migrated to Hungary from Germany, they traveled along the Danube River. They were invited by the Hungarian monarchy to the region after the devastating wars with the Turks. This region was a constant battleground for centuries, and Hungary was under Turkish occupation for about 150 years. There are fortresses and castles throughout the area from this era. The German migrants helped repopulate and repair the land through farming and rebuilding settlements. The Hungarian monarchy also advertised to specifically Catholic Germans to migrate to the area as Hungary was a Catholic kingdom.

  9. Mike Denk says:

    Thanks for the articles….This is great information…I ran in to a young man (20 something) out at the LDS Church near the lake here in Springfield, IL when we were doing geneology research. He was the first to explain to me about the German-Hungarian mix in cultures and how it came about.
    In immigration and census documents my Grandfather states his home area was Somogy. Hungary. He came in 1893 with his mother.
    My Grandmother in the census states she is from Austria. They were not married when she came ..but they were married at Sacred Heart Church in 1901 the same year she emmigrated . Her maiden name was Scherer. We have found nothing on her arrival to NY or any other port.
    Thanks Mike Denk

  10. May I reply to Dylan Shomidie? I spend some of my childhood at the home of Frank and Nellie Kohlrus. This Frank was the son of my grandparents Joseph and Theresa, from the above article. Perhaps Mr. Shomidie’s “Frank” was the son of one of Joseph’s brothers, either Wenzel, Karl, or Anton, because his 1883 birth year would make him too old, I believe, to be my Uncle Frank. My Uncle Frank and Nellie Kohlrus had rabbit hutches and made wine on their property, as did my grandparents Joseph and Theresa, who also raised chickens and had fruit trees. My mother Josephine characterized their German as a “low German,” but that is all I know. As for foods, I can remember sauer kraut and a cabbage stew with hearty meatballs. My cousin Judy Kohlrus still makes a mixed pork and beef meatball dish with kraut and potatoes every New Year’s day, for blessings and good luck. Maybe Dylan could help us make contact with some of the Joseph and Theresa Hoffman Kohlrus relatives still in Hungary, but hopefully some that know English. Last but not least, I would ask him how far Lake Labatom and the forest preserve there is from Urkut, and why the local economy is so depressed.

  11. I think the Scherers and Theresa and Joseph Kolhrus were friends. They also had relatives in NJ, per the mention by Dylan Shomodie.

  12. Nancy Herr says:

    Thank you for this posting. I’ve been researching my husband’s Herr family tree and found his gf Istvan (Stephen) Herr was born 15 Oct 1887 in Mecsekszentkut, Pecs, Austria-Hungary. It explained why his RC German family ate a lot of Hungarian food. The family emigrated when his gf was a baby and settled in western PA. All the men worked in the coal mines.
    If anyone knows any information about the Herr and Martz (Steve’s maternal line) families in the area of Pecs, I would be very grateful.
    I’m not on facebook. Happily, Cathy Schwartz is a distant cousin to my husband’s Herr line. It really is a small world.

  13. Anne henry says:

    I am the granddaughter of Anna (Kohlrus) and Michael Rock. This is quite a nice view into my family history. I also took care of my great uncle Louie when he was a resident of St Joseph’s home. He would often share stories of my grandmother and him. He often would mistake me for her.

  14. Daniel says:

    When I first saw that map, courtesy of William Cellini Jr, I was stunned. The map seems to indicate that the Donauschwaben migrated deep into Serbia, far south of Belgrade. But on closer inspection, Belgrade is just very poorly placed on the map. Indeed, the homeland of the Danube Swabians only goes as far south as Belgrade itself. The city briefly did have a large German population inhabiting it, around 1730 I think, due to Austrian gaining control of that part of Serbia, and kicking out the local Muslims Europeans who had lived there under Ottoman rule. Much alike however, the Germans population there was forced to leave once the city returned to Ottoman control.

  15. Jean says:

    What a great article AND discussion. Thanks for sharing.

  16. Cathy Schwartz says:

    I have just returned from visiting the area of Hungary and many of the little villages. I had found that all of my dad’s family, Frank George (Beaver) Schwartz, originated from that region. His great-grandfather George Schwartz was born in Porva, Hungary and must have moved down the mountain at some point to Ajkarendek. His grandfather Ferenc Schwartz and uncle Gabriel immigrated in 1895 to Springfield from Ajkarendek, grandmother Maria Weisz and her brother Julius from Magyarpolany in 1897, and she married Ferenc (now Frank) in 1898. The house is still there on 14th Street right behind Humphrey’s Market. Maria’s brother Julius lived north and right next door. Ferenc (Frank) Schwartz died young at 29, leaving Maria on her own with 4 young children in 1905. She then married Ferenc’s cousin George Fix. It appears that most of his immediate family also were living and working in this area. My Grandmother Margaret Schwartz’s family were Kenner (Kenyeres) and Herr. Also from Hungary but Pecs and Nemet-Lad, Somogy, Hungary. All of this generation of men were coal miners with my grandfather, Frank Schwartz, also being the first to go into the coal mine and saying he would never do that again; he became the lead cake decorator at B&Z Bakery. I have so many fond memories of going to Grandma’s and walking around to see all of the “cousins”, the Fix’s, Zeman’s, Kenner’s that all lived within blocks of each other and attending Sacred Heart Church. I loved this article and comments, as I had no idea that so many of these other people I knew were also coming from that area of Hungary. We loved visiting there and were astounded by the beauty of the area, but also glad when we learned of the expulsion of so many of the Swabians after WWII that most of our people were long settled here.

  17. Maria N. says:

    It is interesting to read that you also have Kenyeres (Kenner) ancestors. My Mom’s maiden name is Maria Kenyeres. Are we related?!
    You did a great job digging out the history and go to see the places they lived before coming here. I am sure they worked hard in the old country, too.

  18. Larry Shultz says:

    My wife has Danube Swabian ancestry from the Banat region close to Romania in Serbia. We were wondering what type of liquors were enjoyed there in the early 20th century. Hope you can help.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *