A Trail for the Heartland

Tom Flynn

Speaking of freethought trails, while west-central New York has an unusually rich deposit of radical reform history, it’s far from the only region in America with sufficient material for a Freethought Trail. In October 2017, CF I Vice President for Philanthropy Martina Fern and I traveled to Missouri. There, we were joined by freethought historian Fred Whitehead and shown the historical “sights” from Kansas City to St. Louis.

From my work with the Kansas City Eupraxophy Center and its successor, the Center for Inquiry Midwest, during the 1990s, I knew that Missouri and Kansas shared an unusually vivid freethought heritage. (I learned more from Freethought on the American Frontier, the 1992 book by Whitehead and Center for Inquiry Midwest cofounder Verle Muhrer, still the definitive sourcebook for freethought history in the heartland.)

Whitehead, who had nurtured similar thoughts of celebrating his region’s radical reform history, was delighted to show us the sites in Kansas City and work with us in choosing where we would visit as we worked our way east to St. Louis. He also reminded us that the area of interest did not end at Missouri’s western border; if anything, the potential is even richer in Kansas. (Though few Americans still know who Ingersoll was, many recognize the phrase “Bleeding Kansas,” emblem of brutal pre-Civil War battles between abolitionists and supporters of slavery—and even that is only the beginning.)

The October tour revealed some worthy sites that merit inclusion in a future Missouri-Kansas Freethought Trail. They include a present-day apartment building, originally the luxurious Ambassador Hotel where Sinclair Lewis stayed while he was researching his anti-religious novel Elmer Gantry—the same research visit during which, addressing a public meeting, he famously dared God to strike him dead. (God blinked.) Then there’s Liberal, today an unremarkable rural village. Founded by a nineteenth-century freethinker, its original charter barred both churches and saloons; nearly 140 years later, the only signs of its radical past are streets still named for Ingersoll, Darwin, Thomas Paine, and even sex radical Elmina Slenker. Hermann, which still resembles the German village after which it was designed, contains impressive memorials to regionally prominent freethinkers and abolitionists. St. Louis features an unusual nude statue commemorating freethinking German-American journalists and the site of a fraternal society famously influenced by radicals exiled from Germany’s failed revolutions of 1848 and 1849. But even this list merely scratches the surface.

In the coming months, Fred Whitehead and I will continue seeking a way forward to create a Kansas-Missouri trail patterned after its precursor in west-central New York, with a comprehensive website and probably a brochure for roadside distribution. If you live in the heartland and have something to contribute to this project, please get in touch with me. If you have knowledge that the area where you reside is historically rich enough to support a Freethought Trail of its own, contact me too. Down the road, I’d like nothing better than to see regional Freethought Trails dotting the country. What better way to demonstrate that freethought and other radical reform initiatives have enriched American life all across the nation, no matter how hard religious conservatives may have labored to encourage that this history would be forgotten? Let’s make some freethought history of our own!

KANSAS CITY

John Emerson Roberts (1853–1942) was a Baptist minister who “defected” to the Unitarians. Finding even their relaxed teachings too restrictive, he became an independent “freethought minister.” His “Church of This World” had no building; instead it rented large theaters in Kansas City. Full houses turned out to hear Roberts’s refreshingly secular sermons, which were reprinted in local newspapers and also around the country, making Roberts a minor celebrity. Roberts often lectured at the Isis Theater, contained in the Wirthman Building on the southwest corner of 31st and Troost streets.

The Isis opened in 1918 and was considered Kansas City’s finest theater outside the central business district. (The Isis was also where Walt Disney, then a struggling commercial artist, met his early partner Ub Iwerks and Carl Stallings, the Isis organist who went on to score the first Mickey Mouse cartoons and later Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes.) The theater closed in 1970, a casualty of racial unrest in Kansas City. The Wirthman Building was razed in 1997. Since then, the site has been a busy transit stop. No marker commemorates the historically rich Isis Theater.

The Ambassador Hotel at Broadway and 36th Streets opened in 1925. Its Spanish Revival architecture echoed Kansas City’s successful Country Club Plaza retailing center located nearby. In spring 1926, author Sinclair Lewis—already famed for his novels Main Street, Babbitt, and Arrowsmith—came to Kansas City. Having resolved to write a novel about Midwestern revivalism, he installed himself at the Ambassador. There he held salons where he had colorful arguments with local ministers, sometimes holding several simultaneously at bay with his freethinking invective.

On April 18, 1926, Lewis delivered a guest sermon at the liberal Linwood Boulevard Christian Church (whose site is now an empty lot). He was fiercely critical of the then-new fundamentalist movement. “Is it fear of hell that makes us good?” he thundered. “If this theory is part of your Christian religion, then damn your Christian religion.” With a flourish, Lewis set his pocket watch on the rostrum and dared God to strike him dead in the next ten minutes. “Here’s a lovely chance for God to show what he can do.” Concluding his remarks (and still very much alive), Lewis returned to the Ambassador.

Kansas City’s clerics were divided in their opinions of Lewis after his research visit concluded. Local opinion would unite against him when the scathing satirical novel based on his research, Elmer Gantry, was published. By all accounts, Lewis cared for that no more than he had worried that God might take his life.

The Linda Hall Library is a private science and engineering library located on fourteen landscaped acres adjacent to the University of Missouri-Kansas City. It was founded in 1946 by freethinking grain magnate Herbert F. Hall and named for his wife, Linda. It is the largest independent science library in North America and among the largest in the world. Researchers from across the globe make use of its vast collection, which includes rare first editions by Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Francis Bacon, and Georges Buffon.

The Foolkiller, founded in 1970, was a free-form cultural center whose performances, open-mic concerts, and discussion groups enlivened Kansas City’s counterculture for almost two decades. At its original storefront on 31st Street, the group staged a folk-opry every weekend plus a hectic schedule of cultural events. Political and religious radicals expressed themselves at parties that often lasted till dawn. In the early 1980s, the Foolkiller acquired this building at 39th and Main Streets, where it continued its manic schedule until operating costs became overwhelming. The Foolkiller had its legacies: the
folk-arts alliance CrossCurrents of Culture and Kansas City’s own Center for Inquiry branch (closed 2001), which arose from the Kansas City Eupraxsophy Center co-led by Foolkiller veteran Verle Muhrer.

JEFFERSON CITY

Appointed a federal judge for the Western District of Missouri by Abraham Lincoln, abolitionist and freethought lecturer Arnold Krekel built this home on Cliff Street in 1865. The name “Cliff Manor” was Krekel’s; it has been carried forward by the bed and breakfast that now occupies the building. In prior years, Krekel belonged to an anti-slavery group, the “Radical Unionists,” which met at a boarding house where the mid-twentieth−century U.S. Post Office stands today. Krekel’s daughter Mattie became a prominent social reformer and freethought lecturer. After the Civil War, Judge Krekel helped to establish a college for freed African Americans in Jefferson City, which operates today as Lincoln University-Missouri.

LIBERAL

Inspired by reading Robert Green Ingersoll, freethinker and retired Union officer G.H. Walser resolved to found a town where agnostics could meet and discuss their ideas in peace. In 1880 he founded Liberal, about 120 miles south of Kansas City. The town charter barred clergy, churches, and saloons. By 1883, about three hundred variously eccentric freethinkers dwelled there. Local institutions included a normal school, a secular Sunday school, a freethought paper, a Universal Mental Liberty Hall, and even a small university. Area religionists found the village intolerable; Methodist minister Clark Braden bought a parcel just beyond the town’s border and tried to erect a church, leading to years of feuding. Walser himself drifted from freethought and took up spiritualism. After a medium Walser had championed was revealed as a fraud, Walser moved away. “Freethought University” moved to Oregon, where it continued for several years further.

Liberal lost little time shedding its freethought character. Today it is a pallid village whose colorful past is preserved only in its street names. Streets named for Darwin, Ingersoll, Thomas Paine (though misspelled), Walser himself, and freethinker/sex radical Elmina Slenker recall the past for those in the know.

HERMANN

Situated midway between Kansas City and Saint Louis, Hermann was founded in 1837 by the German Settlement Society of Philadelphia. Its design consciously imitated a German country village, taking advantage of a setting on the Missouri River that German immigrants might find reminiscent of the Rhine. Hermann became a hotbed of anti-slavery activism and left a rich deposit of historic buildings that are preserved and skillfully interpreted today. Additionally, in recent years the area has emerged as the heart of Missouri’s fast-growing farm winery tourism district.

The Deutschheim State Historic Site preserves two significant buildings. One is the home and print shop of Carl Strehly, who with his brother-in-law Eduard Muehl (pictured) published the Licht Freund (Friend of Light), an influential German-language anti-slavery newspaper. “We hold ourselves as free men who did not escape slavery in our old home lands to support it here in America,” Muehl wrote.

The Licht Freund was launched in 1840 in Cincinnati, Ohio; in 1843, Strehly and Muehl moved the operation to Hermann. The Licht Freund was the first German-language newspaper published west of St. Louis. The paper ceased publication in 1854 after Muehl’s death in a cholera epidemic. Three years later, another owner repurposed the building as a winery, adding a vaulted wine cellar and a tavern room.

The museum preserves, among many other things, Strehly and Muehl’s printing press and a much-worn copy of the first issue of the Licht Freund published in Hermann.

MOBERLY

Freethinker/radical Jack Conroy, a regionally prominent proletarian writer, is best known for The Disinherited, a thinly fictionalized tale of suffering and resistance among miners during the Great Depression. His work was championed by H. L. Mencken and has since been rediscovered by scholars. The Kate Stamper Wilhite Library at Moberly Community College is home to the Jack Conroy American Studies Collection, numbering several thousand volumes. It is open to scholars and the general public on weekdays.

ST. LOUIS

Located in Compton Hill Reservoir Park, the Naked Truth monument commemorates three reform-minded German-American newspaper publishers. Emil Preetorius, Carl Daenzer, and Carl Schurz all participated in the failed democratic revolutions of 1848 and 1849 in Germany. Like thousands of other educated, often-freethinking “Forty-Eighters,” they were exiled from Germany in 1850. Arriving by various paths in St. Louis, all became leaders of the city’s influential German-language press. Preetorius and Daenzer were active abolitionists; Schurz served in the Civil War, attaining the rank of major-general. After the war, all championed reform causes.

The monument was designed by Wilhem Wandschneider and dedicated in 1914. (Interstate highway construction forced it to be moved to its current location in 1969.)

The woman represents Truth; her nudity was controversial. She holds two torches representing the Enlightenment in Germany and America. Three metallic relief medallions in the stone pediment above the statue bear likenesses of Preetorius, Daenzer, and Schurz.

The Nord St. Louis Turnverein was a center of community life for German-Americans in northern St. Louis. It emphasized turning, or gymnastics, as a form of physical culture and also served as a civic society and educational center. Founded in 1870, the Turnverein reflected the ideals of a community unusually friendly toward freethought. (Shorn of their distinctive German identities, Turnvereins in some American cities survived into the twentieth century as Turners’ Clubs.)

The Nord St. Louis Turnverein began a slow decline after the 1960s and closed for good in 2000. Repeated attempts to rehabilitate or repurpose the structure, already in poor condition, failed. A July 2006 fire severely damaged the complex. What remained was demolished in April 2011. An empty lot is all that remains to remember a vibrant freethought-friendly German-American community center.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).


New York State has no monopoly on radical reform history.

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