The History of Predecessor Societies to American Turners, New York

     The 1848/49 revolution in Germany brought several thousand political refugees--the so-called 48ers—to the United States. Among these refugees were Turners, who soon after their arrival, started to build Turner societies after their German models. These German/American organizations were for the development of physical education as well as vehicles with which German immigrants could continue their cultural endeavors in North America during the 19th century.

     On June 6, 1850, a group of 36 young men, all German, met at Stubenbard’s Restaurant on Duane Street in lower Manhattan and founded what was then called the Socialistischen Turn Verein. In the fall of 1851, this first New York Turner Society established a school for teaching gymnastics to boys. By 1853 there were ten Turner Societies in the nation. In 1856 the Eagle Hall at Chrystie and Delancey Streets was obtained to accommodate the growth in membership. Rapid expansion led to the purchase of the Quaker Meeting House at 27-33 Orchard Street, north of Canal Street, in 1859. On March 20, 1857 the Society was incorporated by a special act of the State Legislature and its name was changed to “The Turn Verein, in the City of New York,” commonly referred to as the New York Turn Verein (N.Y.T.V.). It operated under this name another 126 years until it merged with Mount Vernon Turners to form the American Turners of New York, Inc. in 1983.

     With the start of the Civil War in 1861, President Abraham Lincoln, on April 15, called for 75,000 volunteers for the Union. Within two weeks, the 20th Regiment of New York Volunteers was organized, with 1,200 officers and men, all Turners. The Turners’ involvement in the American Civil War showed that they were willing, as an ethnic minority, for fight for the democratic principles of their newly chosen homeland. From this point on, Turners lived in a country whose rights they had fought for and whose history they were a part of.

     The 20th Regiment saw two years of heavy action—Wilderness, Malvern Hill, Antietam, Fredericksburg and Salem Heights. The State of New York erected a monument commemorating the Regiment’s gallantry and marking the place on the Antietam battlefield where the Turners made a charge. They were the only ones in that battle to be so honored by the State of New York.

     One major goal of the Turners after the Civil War was the reformation of the American educational system. In 1868 they sought compulsory school attendance for all children until the age of 14 and devoted themselves to the promotion of German gymnastics in American public schools.

     Constant expansion of activities in the Turn Verein led to the decision to move uptown from Orchard Street. In April 1895, the land on the southeast corner of East 85th Street and Lexington Avenue was purchased, and a new building was dedicated on November 30, 1898. In July 1921, a group of members organized the New York Turner Club to provide a summer beachfront home in the Throggs Neck section of the Bronx.

     The years following World War 1 saw the development of high-grade gymnasts at the NYTV. Among them were Kurt Rottman and Adolph Zink; both were on the 1924 U.S. Olympic team. Adeline Gehrig, a superb fencer, was also on that team.

     NYTV continued to send gymnasts to the Olympics: Los Angeles 1932, Fred Meyer and George Gulack, and F. Kanis as gymnastic coach; Berlin Olympiad 1936, Fred Meyer and Mary Wright.

     World War ll was a period of membership decline and curtailment of activities. There were 84 men and one woman in the military services for the conflict. All veterans returned, despite considerable combat experience.

     The 1948 Olympics in London saw Anita Simmonis and Vincent D’Autorio on the gymnastic teams and our distinguished gymnastic instructor, Henry Schroeder, as a gymnastic judge. D’Autorio competed in the 1952 Helsinki games as well as did Ruth Lehle Topalian. In 1964, at the 18th Olympiad in Tokyo, volleyball was an event and Turner Ernie Suwara, Jr., was a member of the U.S. Volleyball Team. In 1968 his brother, Rudy, was named captain of the Olympic U.S. Volleyball Team.

     In late 1977, preliminary talks got underway to consolidate the Mount Vernon Turners with the New York Turners. The Mount Vernon Turners was founded on January 28, 1891 when Mount Vernon was still a village. They immediately opened a school of physical education on High Street in rented facilities. In 1900 they moved into their own building to accommodate the expanding membership at 10th and Stephen Avenue. Ten years later an addition to the gym and clubhouse was dedicated.

     Disaster struck as the Society was preparing to celebrate its 25th Anniversary when fire completely destroyed the Turn Verein building on January 22, 1916. With unprecedented speed, a new facility was designed for the original site; cornerstone was laid in July 1916 and the building dedicated one year after the devastating fire. Competitions were held with the District Turner Societies including NYTV, Long Island and Brooklyn rotating the domicile of the event. Teams were sent to National Turner festivals led by excellent physical education instructors.Two other Bronx Turner societies, Woodstock in 1921 and the German-American Turn Verein (the D-A) in 1957, merged into Mount Vernon. In 1974 volunteers completed a total renovation of the Rathskeller. Ongoing problems with the physical plant placed great demands on the dedicated membership.

     Whereas talks about consolidation of Mount Vernon with New York had started some years before, it didn’t become a reality until 1983. (See History of American Turners New York, Inc.) Today the National American Turners membership approximates 13,000. Its Societies have dropped their political engagement but they still promote not only health and physical education through their programs, but also cultural projects, urging their members “to exercise the right of independent thought and action through the ballot and to follow the dictates of their conscience in religious matters.” Although the American Turners have lost their influence on physical education in public schools, they are very proud to be among the first to have introduced physical education to American public schools.