The Raiderettes: The Women Who Built Evansville’s P-47 Thunderbolts

Sometimes when you think back over your old history texts, and remember that the accounts there relate the deeds of men- not women- doesn’t it give you a marvelous feeling to realize that the greatest chapter of history of mankind is being written today, and that you women are going to have your names in the headlines?

-LaVerne Heady, columnist for Republic Aviation News

Reliable, versatile, and fast, the P-47 Thunderbolt is considered one of the most important fighter-bombers in World War II. Manufactured by Republic Aviation Corporation and debuted in 1943, the P-47 served in both the European and Pacific theaters and quickly became the Allied Forces’ main workhorse. By the end of the war, Republic Aviation produced 15,683 Thunderbolts, which performed more than half a million missions, shooting down more Luftwaffe aircrafts than any other Allied fighter. What’s more impressive than its statistics, however, is the pilots’ testimonials on the durability of these planes, which quickly gained a reputation for their ability to deliver a pilot safely home after sustaining otherwise catastrophic amounts of damage.[i] One of the most dramatic examples of the Thunderbolts’ durability occurred in 1945, when the entirety of a P-47s right wing was sheared off during a bombing mission. The pilot returned to base unharmed, and the plane was reportedly repaired and flown for another 50 missions.[ii]

Headshot of Heady, Republic Aviation News, Indiana State Library.

Military history often focuses on aircraft design and the pilots who flew them. However, who built these planes is equally intriguing. Almost half of the manpower behind P-47 production were women. Known as “Raiderettes,” these women served in a wide array of positions at Republic. This piece will examine the lived experiences of the Raiderettes at the Republic plant in Evansville, Indiana and how their hard work, sacrifices, and patriotism contributed to the production of over one-third of the Thunderbolts manufactured during World War II.


ON THE ASSEMBLY LINE: WOMEN’S ROLES AT REPUBLIC AVIATION

Evansville played a major role in the home front effort throughout the war. In total, fifty different Evansville companies received over $580 million in defense contracts. This included Sunbeam, Serval Inc., Chrysler, and the Missouri Valley Bridge & Iron Co. Shipyard, which produced critical defense industry products such as ammunition, tracer rounds, and landing ship tanks. This booming industry nearly tripled Evansville’s manufacturing workforce and revitalized the previously struggling city. [iii] In 1942, Republic and the U.S. War Department announced they would build a second P-47 factory south of the Evansville Regional Airport. The first facility was located in Farmingdale, New Jersey. Construction commenced at a rapid pace and the plant was finished in August of 1943, three months ahead of schedule. However, P-47 construction was already underway before the factory was even finished, with newly hired workers manufacturing parts in garages, rented factory spaces, and other facilities. Evansville’s first P-47 dubbed “The Hoosier Spirit” flew from the plant on September 19, 1942. The Hoosier Spirit marked the first of over 6,000 Thunderbolts manufactured in Evansville during the span of three years.

Hoosier Spirit P-47 Thunderbolt, September 19, 1942, Evansville Courier and Press, accessed Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library.

From the beginning, Republic sought to hire a substantial number of women workers because men were fighting overseas. Republic recruited women through newspaper advertisements and provided free, educational opportunities. Evansville College (now the University of Evansville) partnered with Purdue University and the U.S. Department of Education to offer twenty-two-night classes in engineering, science, mathematics, aircraft drafting, and other industrial skills. Notably, the Evansville Press wrote that, for the night classes, “Women especially are urged to enroll… The War Manpower Commission estimates that at least two million more women must enter war industries this year.”[iv] Soon after night classes began, Evansville College and Purdue began to offer daytime classes as well to fulfill the needs of night shift workers at Republic and other defense companies. E. C. Surat, district manager of the Purdue war training program, told the Evansville Courier and Press that “Women with mathematical training may be placed at once” in factory positions and urged that women seeking a defense industry job “enroll in the qualifying mathematics course.”[v]

The Evansville Mechanic Arts School also recruited women for their industrial classes. Previously, the school designed courses solely for men, but, upon the outbreak of the war, opened to women “without a halt.” The school especially appealed to homemakers and unemployed women to enroll.[vi]  In her article, “Diary of a Riveter,” Raiderette Mary Ellen Ward describes the challenges of these types of training courses and adjusting to the “nerve wracking” noise as they learned drilling techniques, how to measure rivets, and built physical strength to rivet for fourteen plus hours a day.[vii]  The City of Evansville and the Republic Aviation Corporation recognized early on the integral role women would play in the home front effort and began recruiting them and providing key training and education for them to succeed in manufacturing roles.

Women from the “tri-state” area of Illinois, Kentucky, and Southern Indiana performed a diverse number of roles, including managerial positions, across the Republic plant. Raiderettes could be found working side by side with men in machining parts, welding metal, wiring electrical components, inspecting aircrafts, and transporting supplies. This makes it impossible to describe a singular, definitive experience among the Raiderettes. However, women across the plant embraced their roles, seeing it as a patriotic duty, and exceeded the expectations of the public. The Muncie Evening Press reported that, in some tasks, women workers across the country exceeded men’s production output by 10 percent or more.[viii] Day-to-day life in the plant consisted of 10 to 14-hour shifts across various departments and, for many, included long commutes of up to 80 miles away a day. Beyond production work, women actively participated in work-adjacent roles, leading the charge on key social services for all Republic employees. Given the amount of time spent at both work and Republic-related events, almost all Raiderettes experienced World War II primarily through the lens of their position at the Evansville plant, making it a key experience to analyze in order to better understand the Indiana home front during World War II.

Article showcasing “Who’s Who” among the Raiderettes and their various positions at Republic, January 29, 1943, Republic Aviation News, photo cropped by IHB, accessed via the Indiana State Library.

One Raiderette, Mildred F. Harris, participated in an oral history interview in 2002, providing key insight into the subjective experience of women at Republic. A schoolteacher, Harris entered war work when her husband was drafted in 1943, commuting 55 miles a day, six days a week from her home in Kentucky to work at the Evansville plant. Harris was placed in a supervisory role managing other aircraft inspectors and supervising factory operations. She stated that men respected her and other female inspectors’ position of authority “as long as the inspectors had this army badge on,” and that they recognized the need for women to work in factories as “they couldn’t get enough men to do it.” Despite this, Harris still experienced sexism in the workplace with some of the men calling her nicknames like “Rose,” “Buttercup,” or “Daisy,” despite her position supervising them. Harris largely ignored these nicknames and kept to herself while she performed her job. Like many women, Harris felt a duty to support both her country and male relatives who served in the war, underlining the importance of her position as an aircraft inspector and the pressures of such long days and high stakes. Her experiences also demonstrated that, simply because women now appeared in “male roles,” that sexism and gender roles still pervaded most Raiderettes experiences. [ix]

Harris in 1943, courtesy of Mildred F. Harris, courtesy The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society.

Women also contributed to the company culture at Republic, actively participating in clubs, the company newspaper, and sports leagues for basketball, softball, bowling, golf, and ping pong. Republic’s clubs competed against other manufacturing companies in Evansville. In addition, women led the charge on hosting social functions like skating nights, formal dances, and even a holiday musical production called “Flying High.” A daycare service was provided for working mothers at the reduced price of 50 cents per week.[x] This proved to be critical as women often found themselves to be “two-job” workers, working at Republic for fourteen hours a day while also continuing to maintain the domestic sphere and raise children, often without the support of their spouse who may have been drafted. Women also formed the “war matrons club,” which catered specifically to older Raiderettes whose sons were serving overseas. This club tracked soldier’s birthdays, wrote to them, and provided a support system for mothers separated from their children due to the war.[xi] While easily overlooked, these services provided necessary social outlets during a period of great change and anxiety in the United States and fostered a strong sense of community for all Republic employees. They also provided workers, many of whom had family members serving overseas, with vital social connections and filled a key gap in societal recreation and relaxation.

Members of the War Matrons Club, June 18, 1943, Republic Aviation News, accessed the Indiana State Library.

Republic Aviation News. v. 6 n. 3-v. 11 (1944-1945): 3, accessed Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library Digital Archive.

While women were praised for their patriotism and largely welcomed into the plant, gender roles still defined the Raiderettes’ wartime experiences. Often, the work of women was more heavily scrutinized than men’s and feminine traits characterized as a detriment to wartime production. This can be seen in Republic Aviation News through warnings against “super-sensitiveness” in the workplace and constant reminders that a woman must uphold or surpass the standards of the men who worked alongside them.[xii] Additionally, extra emphasis was placed on women’s fashion and social life with an entire column called Strictly Feminine. The column reported on social news, like who danced with whom at the canteen, what women were wearing to social functions, and other, non-work related, news. Women were often expected to meet their position’s expectations and perform social and emotional labor while doing so. Republic Aviation News paints a more nuanced picture than that of the one-dimensional and patriotic “Rosie the Riveter,” who flawlessly steps into a traditionally male position just as a man would. Women’s positions and experiences in home front factories were distinct and laced with gender roles and bias as they were expected to do a “man’s job” but in a traditionally feminine manner.

A major point of friction between women and men in the factory was whether women would continue working after the war concluded or if their jobs ought to be relinquished back to male workers. Inspector Harris, upon reflecting on the closure of the plant, stated “Now, what they [the male factory workers] expected them to do, what they wanted them to do when the war was over, [was] to go back home and wash dishes like they had been doing.”[xiii] This attitude is reflected in the fact that, after the government cancelled their wartime contracts with Republic, women disproportionately lost their jobs compared to male workers.[xiv] While it is debated whether women truly desired to return home or sought to continue working in the factories- likely a mix of both- they unilaterally faced unfair obstacles in remaining in the workforce post-war.

Pictured is restricted radio operator Naomi Johnson, September 3, 1943, Republic Aviation News, accessed the Indiana State Library.

Despite the continued presence of gender bias in the factory, Raiderettes pushed against and broke the glass ceiling in various ways. For example, Naomi Johnson was notable for being the first woman restricted radio operator- a position that allows users to utilize advanced aircraft radios to communicate and direct pilots- in the region. Originally from Marion, Kentucky, Johnson moved to Evansville in 1937 and earned her operator license in 1940 from the Federal Communications Commission. Johnson originally tested police radios in cars but, upon the outbreak of the war, transitioned to Republic Aviation. She began working on electrical equipment but, after nine months, was transferred to a radio control board, where she communicated with pilots flying and landing P-47s at the Evansville Regional Airport. Due to her strong interest in and advanced knowledge of aviation, she was made an honorary member of the Civil Air Patrol. When interviewed by Republic Aviation News, Johnson expressed her strong passion for her work, stating, “The thing I like best about radio work is the fact that it’s something you can never learn enough about. You can just keep studying and studying. But I wouldn’t mind being called a book-worm if I could read about radio.”[xv]

Reclamation agent Eunice Hall, January 7, 1944, Republic Aviation News, accessed the Indiana State Library.

Another woman, Eunice Hall of Newburgh, Indiana, became the first “reclamation agent” at the Evansville plant, a new position that encouraged the conservation of factory materials to reduce waste in the various plant divisions. Working with the Utility Shop division, Hall also served as the division’s Safety Council representative. While Republic Aviation News minimized her position by comparing it to a “housekeeping” role, Hall excelled at leadership by defining this new company role and taking the lead on both shop safety and material conservation, a key aspect of the home front’s defense industry economy.[xvi]

Other women broke into aviation and flew P-47s domestically. The Women Airforce Service Pilots, (WASPs) were elite civilian pilots who supported the war effort by ferrying, testing, and transporting planes. Described as “polished” and having perfect uniforms, the WASPs visited the Evansville plant numerous times to transport Thunderbolts to military bases.[xvii] On October 10, 1943, Theresa James and Betty Gillies landed in Evansville to deliver two Thunderbolts and transport two others. Gillies is notable as the first ever woman to fly a P-47 aircraft.[xviii] In 1944, WASPs regularly began transporting P-47s from the Evansville plant, with Republic Aviation News stating that 85 women would participate and, each month, 16 of them would fly to the Evansville plant to ferry completed planes to military bases.[xix]  While the activities of the WASPs generated much interest both in the news and amongst factory workers, it is reported that the WASPs largely stayed separated from the rest of the factory and focused on their positions.[xx]

Raiderettes continue to work after the announcement of V-E Day, Republic Aviation News, accessed Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library Digital Archive.

As evidenced by the previous examples, women held diverse roles within Republic Aviation and navigated their new, public-facing roles in a variety of ways. Some women, like those in the War Matrons club or Eunice Hall, embraced social responsibilities at the plant by serving on committees and clubs and embracing a more “traditionally feminine” role at Republic. Meanwhile, others, such as the WASPs or Harris, were more reserved in their roles and attempted to ignore or minimize gender roles and bias. However, the common thread of all of these women is that they collaborated with both male workers and one another, pushing against traditional gender roles to best serve the United States during World War II. Their sacrifices were largely recognized and praised by the public. However, it was also expected that they would revert to traditional roles upon the end of the war which, generally, is what occurred. Despite this, these women successfully navigated a challenging period in American history to provide a vital service on the home front and ought to be remembered for their work.


Republic Aviation News. v. 6 n. 3-v. 11 (1944-1945): 6, accessed Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library Digital Archive.

On August 21, 1945, Republic Aviation announced they would be ending all production at Evansville and the plant was soon listed for sale. Upon its closure, the plant had produced over one-third of all the P-47 Thunderbolts in the world, hired thousands of employees, and infused millions of dollars into the local economy. In addition, the plant had gained national recognition, earning three Army-Navy E awards for “excellence in production.”[xxi] This prestigious award was granted to 5% of all eligible plants and represented the top echelon of home front production.[xxii] The plant’s production was considered so outstanding, that President Franklin D. Roosevelt even visited the plant on April 27, 1943 as part of a 17-day, 20-state tour of America’s defense industry, presenting awards to multiple employees.[xxiii]

Without the thousands of women who worked at the Republic plant, these national honors would not have been achieved. Similarly, the quality and reliability of the P-47, which is world-renowned and contributed to Allied Forces’ air superiority during WWII, would not have been possible without the dedicated hands that constructed the planes at an unprecedented pace. While the lives and roles of the Raiderettes at the Republic factory did not ascribe to the simplified “Rosie the Riveter” archetype, they were critical to the defense effort nonetheless, and ought to be commemorated as both Indiana and national heroes.

 

Notes:

[i] “Republic P-47 Thunderbolt,” National Museum of World War II Aviation, accessed https://www.worldwariiaviation.org/aircraft/republic-p47-thunderbolt; National Air and Space Museum, “Republic P-47D-30-RA Thunderbolt,” Smithsonian Institution, n.d., accessed https://www.si.edu/object/republic-p-47d-30-ra-thunderbolt%3Anasm_A19600306000.

[ii] Dario Leone, “The Story of the P-47 that Safely RTB after it Had a Wing Sheared off Against a Chimney during a Strafing Run and its Tail Damaged by Spitfires that Mistook it for a German Fighter,” The Aviation Geek Club, September 20, 2023, accessed https://theaviationgeekclub.com/the-story-of-the-brazilian-p-47-that-safely-rtb-after-it-had-a-wing-sheared-off-against-a-chimney-on-a-strafing-run-and-its-tail-damaged-by-spitfires-that-mistook-it-for-a-german-fighter/.

[iii] James Lachlan MacLeod, Evansville in World War II (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2015); David E. Bigham, “The Evansville Economy,” Traces of Indiana And Midwestern History 3, no. 4 (Fall 1991): 26-29, accessed https://images.indianahistory.org/digital/collection/p16797coll39/id/7111/rec/3; Hugh M. Ayer, “Hoosier Labor in the Second World War,” Indiana Magazine of History 59, no. 2 (June 1963): 95-120, accessed https://scholarworks.iu.edu/journals/index.php/imh/article/view/8960/11634.

[iv] “College to give Classes in War Work,” Evansville Press, September 12, 1943, accessed Newspapers.com.

[v] “Day War Training Classes Planned,” Evansville Courier, October 15, 1943, accessed Newspapers.com.

[vi] “These Doors Never Close: Mechanic Arts School Has Prominent Part in War Work Training Program,” Evansville Courier and Press, July 2, 1942, accessed Newspapers.com.

[vii] Mary Ellen Ward, “Diary of a Riveter,” Republic Aviation News, February 12, 1943, accessed Indiana State Library.

[viii] “Two-Job War Worker: She Does a Man-Sized Job on Production Line Plus ‘Women’s Work’ of Maintaining a Home,” Muncie Evening Press, November 5, 1942, accessed Newspapers.com.

[ix] James Russell Harris, “Rolling Bandages and Building Thunderbolts: A Woman’s Memories of the Kentucky Home Front, 1941-1945,” The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, (Spring 2002): 167-194, accessed JSTOR.

[x] “New Plan for Child Care Offered: Play Center Fills Need Before and After School,” Republic Aviation News, November 26, 1943, accessed Indiana State Library.

[xi] “War Mothers Organized at Republic Plant,” Evansville Press, April 29, 1943, accessed Newspapers.com.

[xii] “A Message from Ellen J. Dilger,” Republic Aviation News 100, no. 2, January 29, 1943, accessed Indiana State Library.

[xiii] Harris, “Rolling Bandages,” 182.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] “First Woman Restricted Radio Operator in This Region is Republic’s Naomi Johnson,” Republic Aviation News, September 3, 1943, accessed Indiana State Library.

[xvi] “Utility Shop Girl Becomes First Official Reclamation Agent at Indiana Division,” Republic Aviation News, January 7, 1944, accessed Indiana State Library.

[xvii] Harris, “Rolling Bandages,” 184-185.

[xviii] “First Woman Ever to Fly a Thunderbolt is One of Two Girls Landing Here in P-47s,” Republic Aviation News, October 15, 1943, accessed Indiana State Library.

[xix] “First Squadron of Girl Pilots Here to Fly P-47’s,” Republic Aviation News, August 1, 1944, accessed Indiana State Library.

[xx] Harris, “Rolling Bandages,” 184-185.

[xxi] “Raiders Win Army-Navy ‘E’ I.D. [Indiana Division] Gains Highest Production Honor,” Republic Aviation News, May 5, 1944, p. 1, accessed Indiana State Library; “Your Army-Navy ‘E,’” Republic Aviation News, May 5, 1944, p. 2, accessed Indiana State Library; “Army, Navy Honor Raiders,” Republic Aviation News, May 26, 1944, p. 1, accessed Indiana State Library; “Raiders Win 2nd ‘E’ Award: Achievement lauded by Marchev,” Republic Aviation News, November 3, 1944, p. 1, accessed Indiana State Library; “I.D. Earns 2nd Army-Navy ‘E’ for Outstanding Work,” Republic Aviation News, November 3, 1944, p. 2, accessed Indiana State Library; “Raiders Win 3rd Army-Navy “E,” Republic Aviation News, May 25, 1945, p. 1, accessed Indiana State Library.

[xxii] “Army-Navy E Award,” Naval History and Heritage Command, September 15, 2020, accessed https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/a/army-navy-e-award.html.

[xxiii] “Camera Highlights of the President’s Visit to the Indiana Division on Tuesday, April 27,” Republic Aviation News, May 21, 1943, p. 4-5, accessed Indiana State Library; “Roosevelt visits Evansville; Sees P-47 Dive at 500 M.P.H,” Indianapolis News, April 29, 1943, p. 1, accessed Newspapers.com; “Evansville Aircraft Plant Receives Visit of President,” Muncie Evening Press, April 29, 1943, p. 9, accessed Newspapers.com.

Henry Victor: The Father of the South Side Turnverein

On January 11, 1898, a special meeting occurred of the South Side Turnverein, one of Indianapolis’ premier social clubs for German Americans. It was the sixtieth birthday of the organization’s president, Henry Victor. The group heaped “tokens of esteem” on their beloved leader, according to the Indianapolis Journal, which further wrote, “the occasion had the effect of bringing Mr. Victor to tears.” The esteem afforded to Victor was no faint praise; in many respects, he was the main reason the South Side Turnverein met that night, and many others, at all.

Indianapolis Journal, January 12, 1898. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Only a few years earlier, previous leadership had barely gotten the organization off the ground. It wasn’t until Henry Victor took over in 1894 that the South Side Turnverein expanded and flourished, providing its members with athletic activities, social functions, and cultural events. Years later in a glowing article, the Journal noted Victor’s work for the organization, calling him the “‘Father’ of the South Side Turnverein” and writing, “to Henry Victor is due the success the club has attained.”

A German immigrant with a passion of business, Victor epitomized the promise that America held for so many newcomers in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. His successful management of Mozart Hall, one for Indianapolis’s top bars and restaurants, the growth of the South Side Turnverein, and his involvement in numerous civic organizations spoke to his energy and talent for bringing people together to build vibrant communities. As such, the impact he left on the people he served, both at his businesses and with his leadership, provides us with a compelling example of the German American experience in Indiana.

Indianapolis Journal, April 21 1904. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Victor was born on January 11, 1838, in Pommern, Germany, which today sits between Eastern Poland and Western Germany. He lived in Europe for most of his life, becoming “a successful businessman, dealing in silks and dress goods, [and] was also connected with a private bank and was worth considerable money,” noted the Indianapolis News. He likely immigrated to the United States and moved to Indianapolis sometime between 1887 and 1891, as a relatively older man. What would spur a successful businessman in his native land to come to the U.S.? Like a major reversal of fortune. As the News added, “he was stricken with an affliction of the eyes which threatened him with total blindness. He was taken to a hospital, where he remained for several months, during which time losses occurred in his business, and he left Germany practically a broken man.” Like so many who left for the shores of America during that age, he left to restart, and hopefully improve, his life.

Map of Pommern, 1849. Geographicus Rare Antique Maps.

Once in Indianapolis, he got involved in the brewery business, working as a collector for the Terre Haute Brewing Company, which led to his entry into the saloon business. It was in this field that he made his name in the Circle City, with his management of Mozart Hall. In 1892, Victor took over as manager of the decades-old Indianapolis bar and restaurant at 37 South Delaware Street. It didn’t take long for the press to sing his praises. The Indianapolis Journal wrote, “Mr. Victor is one of those whole souled persons who makes friends with everyone he meets, and will not lack in entertaining his customers in that inimitable way he was in conferring with his fellow citizens.” Of Mozart Hall, the article further noted that “none will find a more congenial place in the city to spend a few minutes to pass away the idle moments of the day.”

Indianapolis Journal, May 13, 1892. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Upon assuming management of Mozart Hall, Victor placed ads in Indianapolis’s premier German-language newspaper, the Indiana Tribüne, which described for his community what patrons could expect.

The ad read, roughly translated:

Mozart Hall!

Henry Victor.

The biggest, prettiest and oldest beer-style eatery in town. The spacious and beautifully furnished hall is available for clubs, lodges and private individuals to hold balls, concerts and meetings under liberal conditions.

As the ad declared, Mozart Hall not only served individual customers, but became a meeting place for many organizations, such as unions and benevolent associations. In today’s language, Mozart Hall would be called a “maker space,” a congenial, well-furnished building for work, philanthropy, and entertainment.

Indiana Tribüne, March 18, 1892. Hoosier State Chronicles.

When he wasn’t hosting civil society, Henry Victor actively participated in it. In 1894, he served as the secretary of the Indiana Liquor Dealer’s Association, which met at Mozart Hall. The association advocated policies they believed would “clean up” the liquor business, including regulations on liquor licenses. As the Indianapolis News reported, “a feeling is growing that only decent people should be granted liquor licenses, and that a protest will be entered against granting liquor licenses to ex-convicts, gamblers, violators of the law, and immoral characters.” Additionally, Victor advocated for policies that would make it easier for breweries to start up and provide its product to local businesses, something that clearly benefitted the German immigrant community he was a part of.

However, his involvement in organizations didn’t always go smoothly. In 1895, he very publicly resigned from the Saloon Keeper’s Union, over disagreements about the implementation of a new liquor law, called the “Nicholson Law,” which placed limitations on gambling, saloons, and underage drinking. Before the national experiment of Prohibition, many state and local laws were implemented in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries, as a way to control the ill effects of the liquor trade. However, fierce debates ensued as to how these laws should be followed. In his resignation letter, Victor argued that he was in favor of following these laws and challenging his critics. He wrote:

Many of you members have seen fit to criticize myself and others who have constantly labored for the interest and elevation of the retail trade; and such criticisms have practically gone in public print, and I do not want to be further annoyed this way as in the past, so I will in the future use what influence I possibly have to elevate and regulate the retail business according to my own way.

Former union colleague William G. Weiss, in the Indianapolis Journal, shot back at Victor, arguing that he withdrew because “Mr. Victor is not in sympathy with the union in regard to obeying the law.” Who was right? In the murky territory of pre-Prohibition liquor law, it was often difficult to effectively determine the letter of the law, which led to fierce debates like Victor’s with the Saloon Union. Nevertheless, Victor successfully ran Mozart Hall for many years, earning a reputation as an honest and friendly businessman.

Henry Victor’s notice of his departure from Mozart Hall, Indianapolis News, May 3, 1900. Hoosier State Chronicles.

As his stature in the community grew, so did his involvement in a variety of organizations, the most important of which was the South Side Turnverein. Turnvereins, or Turner Clubs, were a mainstay of German American life during the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries. Founded on the principle of “sound body and mind,” the Turnverein movement was spearheaded by German educator Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, who believed physical exercise and cultural activities led to a healthy life. The South Side Turnverein in Indianapolis, founded on September 24, 1893, began as an offshoot of another organization when about 200 German Americans left the Socialer Turnverein to form their own gymnastics club on the south side. During its first few months, the South Side Turnverein and its members experienced challenges growing the group. That all changed when the membership elected Henry Victor as President, or “First Speaker,” of the organization in September of 1894. He threw himself into the role, rapidly expanding the club’s memberships and activities.

A page of the South Side Turnverein minutes, September 1894. It shows Victor’s election to “First Speaker,” or President of the organization. Indiana State Library Manuscripts Collection, Indiana Memory.

As the Indianapolis Journal wrote of Victor:

Mr. Victor took charge of the work in the spring of 1894, when all efforts to complete the organization and make it a success had failed, and at a time when those supporting the society were losing faith in the undertaking. The enthusiasm and the effectiveness with which he assumed control of the work inspired those interested, and at once new life was put into the organization, and in less than a year a membership of had been secured.

In the next few years, the South Side Turnverein participated in a wide variety of athletic and cultural events. In 1894 alone, the Turnverein hosted a “gymnastic entertainment” at English’s Opera House, produced a “two-act play” called “He Lost His Gloves,” and participated in Indianapolis “Wald-Fest” or “forest festival.” The club was also heavily involved in the larger German community, supporting other Turnvereins and social clubs. In 1898, members of the South Side Turnverein attended a “kommers,” or “students’ entertainment” at the newly opened German House in Indianapolis and some of its members served on the leadership committee of the North American Turnerbund, which decided to move its national headquarters from St. Louis to Indianapolis. Leading by example, Victor’s energy and dedication to the club galvanized the South Side Turnverein and its members.

Indianapolis South Side Turnverein Men’s Class. Victor is the second man standing from the left. Indianapolis South Side Turners Collection, IUPUI University Library, Special Collections and Archives.

Arguably his greatest accomplishment as South Side Turnverein president was overseeing the building of its hall, serving as one of the South Side Turnverein Hall Association’s directors. Leading such a large financial endeavor proved natural to Victor, as his experience with Mozart Hall as well as the German Mutual Insurance Company prepared him for the task. Plans to build the hall started on February 20, 1900, when the South Side Turnverein decided to purchase 150 feet of property on Prospect Street at a cost of $5,000. On March 7, Victor and others filed articles of incorporation for the South Side Turnverein Hall Association, whose charge was to “purchase real estate and to sell the same and particularly to construct and erect for the South Side Turnverein a suitable gymnasium.”

The Association chose Vonnegut & Bohn, one of Indianapolis’s best architecture firms, to design and build their hall, and by June 1900, the Association held the groundbreaking ceremony. Victor, the man responsible for so much of the organization’s success, “dug the first spade of full of dirt and in his speech wished the building progress,” according to the Indianapolis Journal. An illustration of the prospective building appeared in the Indianapolis News on June 7, 1900, with further details on its facilities:

The interior will be arranged with all the appointments of a modern club house. The basement, which will be a full story in hight [sic], will contain the kneipe [bar], bowling alleys, dining-room, women’s parlor, women’s and men’s dressing rooms and shower baths. The main floor will be almost entirely taken up by the large hall, which is also to be used as a gymnasium. This hall will seat, together with gallery, about 700 people. At the east end of the hall there will be a large and well equipped stage. Stretching along the other end of the hall will be a large foyer, with stairways leading to the basement and gallery.

After months of intense work, the South Side Turnverein Hall was completed, and on December 2, the club opened its hall to the public, on the organization’s eight-year anniversary. “In the afternoon the new building was thrown open to the public,” the News reported, “and it was inspected by a large number of visitors.”

South Side Turnverein Hall in the Journal Handbook of Indianapolis by Max Robinson Hyman, 1902. Google Books.

The South Side Turnverein formally dedicated its new hall on January 20, 1901, with 3,000 people in attendance. Victor christened the new building along with Fred Mark, chairman of the building committee, Herman Lieber, president of the North American Turnerbund, and Charles E. Emmerich, superintendent of the Manual Training School, among others. The building and grounds had a cumulative cost of $25,000, raised through its members by the association. A banquet for around 400 people was held the night after the dedication, with the News writing, “Henry Victor, as master of ceremonies, welcomed the representatives of the various German societies at the ‘kommers,’ [or students’ entertainment] with which the South Side Turnverein last night closed the dedicatory services of its new hall. Many women were among the 400 guests and the evening was enjoyable.” In only a a few years, Henry Victor transformed the South Side Turnverein from a small but promising organization into one of Indianapolis’ leading social clubs for the German American community.

Indianapolis News, January 15, 1902. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The membership of the South Side Turnverein reelected Henry Victor to President many times and he continued to serve with distinction until 1905. However, towards the end of this life, he shifted gears to help organize a singing society. A long-time singer with the Fourth Christian Church with a “good voice,” as described by the Indianapolis News, Victor helped incorporate the “The Suedsite Liedertafel,” or “South Side Singing Society” in 1910. He served as the president and the organization performed regularly at the South Side Turnverein. Boasting over 200 members and nearly fifty active members, the organization maintained a men’s chorus, a women’s chorus, and a children’s chorus. The society served as more than just an outlet for those who loved to sing; it also wanted to preserve German culture. As the News reported, “in addition to the singing, the society endeavors to conserve a correct use of the German language.”

Unfortunately, his work with the South Side Singing Society was tragically cut short when he died on September 24, 1910, after a week in the hospital following a stroke. Many German American societies attended his funeral at the South Side Turnverein Hall, and some sang music in tribute, something he likely would have appreciated. The Indianapolis Star wrote in his obituary that “Mr. Victor was interested in the South Side Turnverein and the flourishing condition of the society is attributed largely to his efforts.” In addition to the South Side Turnverein, he belonged to the Columbia Lodge, the Knights of Pythias, and the German Heritage Society, to name a few. Newspaper accounts noted that he was a “marked personality among Germans of city” and “a man of mystery, and it was not known what were his family relations previous to coming to this city [Indianapolis].” He left behind a $60,000 estate, a testament to his acumen for business.

Indianapolis Star, September 25, 1910. Newspapers.com.

The life of Henry Victor is but one extraordinary story among the annals of the German American experience in Indiana. A man whose former home left him nearly destitute, he set out for United States to build a better life, and his decades in Indianapolis served as a prime example of his ability and devotion to the community he called his own. From his successful management of Mozart Hall to his trailblazing leadership of the South Side Turnverein, Victor left a large impression wherever he went in Indianapolis, gaining a reputation for hard work and honest entrepreneurialism. He also dedicated himself to the preservation of German culture through his South Side Singing Society, another fruitful organization he helped found merely months away from his death. In all that he was, Henry Victor personified not only German Americans, but German Hoosiers, an immigrant community that profoundly shaped the history of the State of Indiana.

Henry Victor (center) with colleagues in the Indianapolis South Side Turnverein Men’s Class. Indianapolis South Side Turners Collection, IUPUI University Library, Special Collections and Archives.