The basement brick bread oven of German baker, Georg J. Schmitthenner, at 1527 Elm Street. Photo by Jim Uber.
One of the cool things about all the renovation happening in Over-the-Rhine, is finding the artifacts left behind in the mostly vacant buildings. One amazing artifact several renovators have found are these great basement brick ovens made by the German bakers of the neighborhood. Some have been lost with their buildings, like the ones found at 1302 Republic, and 12 E. 13th Street. But one at 1527 Elm Street was recently found in the basement of a 30 year vacant building that has now received historic tax credits to be renovated.
Some of the new OTR restaurants like A Tavola and Sotto have spent tens of thousands of dollars installing new wood fired ovens. They realize the beautiful products these ovens make, the kind that the working class Germans of Over-the-Rhine were eating every day.
What’s great about this one is its owner, builder and operator, Georg Johann Schmitthenner Sr. was the proverbial German joiner. One of his clubs, the German Pioneer Association , printed his picture and a biography in 1904. So in Georg’s case, his brick oven talks to us and tells a wonderful story about German breadmaking and life in nineteenth century Over-the-Rhine.
Georg was born in May of 1834 in a spa town called Bad Bergzabern, in the Rhineland, Pfalz. The town is on what’s called the Sudliche Winestrasse on the German Wine Route near the border of France, on the southeastern edge of the Palatinate Forest. Here as a young man, Georg learned the bakers trade, from an area rich in bread baking history, particularly rye bread.
In April of 1853, he boarded a ship from Havre de Grace and landed in New York. One month later he came to Cincinnati. He was helped by an older German immigrant Lorenz Fox, who ran a boardinghouse for newcomers, and would co-own his family’s burial plot at the Walnut Hills German Protestant cemetery. In 1864, with a Mr. Humbert, Georg started a bakery at what was then 25 Elder Street (which probably still has a basement oven), and then in 1873 built a four story brick building, with his first floor bakery at 1527 Elm.
Georg J. Schmitthenner’s 1873 bakery building under renovation at 1527 Elm.
Georg’s passport application in 1867 (probably to go home and sell other family members to immigrate) describes him as a short 5’6″, with sandy hair, oval face, blue-gray eyes, and ‘a rather large nose.’ His biography says his intent was to quietly settle down, living over the new bakery, but it didn’t last long. He married another Pfalz immigrant, Barbara Wolf, and had six kids – Georg Jr, Johanna, Lizzeta, Louisa, Friedrick, and Laura. Also living with them were four of his siblings – he had a brother Michael, who would have his own bakery in the West End at 191 Freeman, and a sister Amelia, who would support herself as a single lady as a tailoress.
Georg’s hometown, Bad Bergzabern has a wonderful bread legacy. The Rhineland Pfalz is known for its roggenbrot or rye breads and roggenmischbrot, or rye-wheat blend breads. There are popular versions with sunflower (sonnenblumenkernbrot) and pumpkin seeds (kurbiskernbrot) too. There is one bread native to the town Bad Bergzabern, which is a 60/40 rye to wheat flour mix. There’s another native round dark rye bread, Pfalzer Bauernbrot, made with a mix of potato, wheat, and rye. Another local dark bread, Pfalzer Landbrot is an 80/20 mix of spelt to rye flour. Imagine Georg making all these wonderful , healthy whole grain, fresh breads every day for his neighbors that they might have served with their native sauerbraten, or dipped in their turtle soups.
Roggenmischbrot, rye-wheat bread of Rhineland Pfalz.
Pfalzer Landbrot, a dense dark rye -wheat bread.
A Rhineland Pfalz baker, Gunther Weber, has come out with a book “Gut Brot,” in which he describes his artisanal wood fired bread making, the way our Georg Schmitthenner would have made them in his basement oven.
Rhineland-Pfalz traditional baker Gunther Weber, who uses brick oven baking like Georg Schmitthenner of Over-the-Rhine.
Like many other Cincinnati German bakers, Georg was a singing baker, a longtime member of the German Pioneer Sangerchor. His brother Michael also was a member of a singing society, and Michael’s son George M. was a voice teacher in Covington. So baking and singing went together in the Schmitthenner family. George Sr. was a lifelong member of St. John’s German Protestant Church on Washington Park (now the Transept events center), and a member of the German Orphans Beneficial Society.
In 1891, like many successful Germans of OTR, George moved his large family to Clifton, building two – two and a half story brick houses on the east side of Bishop Street, with help from German architect Anton Rieg, costing him a whopping $8730.
Georg operated the bakery until his death in 1904. Sadly none of his sons took to the trade. His oldest George Jr became a lithographer at Donaldson Lithography in Newport, and worked there in the early teens, the same time my great grandfather John Muchorowski operated their four color press. The siblings continued to live in the Bishop street houses after their parents died, and their father’s basement brick oven stayed at 1527 Elm Street to tell the story over a hundred years later of German breadmaking in Over-the-Rhine.