Turner Ladies: The backbone of the Turnverein

By Kremena Spengler

Staff Writer

NEW ULM – They are the backbone of the Turnverein – providing the free labors behind numerous functions that bring families and community groups together.

The Turner Ladies take the concept of service seriously – but “meekness” would be a misleading label to apply to this group of strong, decisive, fun-loving women who get things done and get their voice heard.

Started in 1889, the Turner Ladies may be a venerable group – but they are not overly retrospective – their view is focused on the future rather than the past.

Brief historic overview

In a well-regarded historic essay written in 2013, Barbara Becker, present secretary of the organization, provides a comprehensive review of its history.

The Turner Ladies Society, originally named the New Ulm Frauenverein and also referred to as the Damenverein, has been a service to Turner Hall since 1889, writes Becker. Forty-four women became charter members, she recounts, and ten more joined a few days later.

The Turner Ladies Society is governed by a constitution and by-laws. Annual dues are paid (in some examples, $2 in 1919; $10 now).

The first members wasted no time in fulfilling their dedication to promoting the interests of the Turnverein, helping keep the organization solvent and working for the betterment of Turner Hall, writes Becker. The ladies planned a spring bazaar at their January 1890 meeting. Every Thursday, the society would meet at Turner Hall to create “fancywork” to be sold. Lunch was served, and the Turner Hall Orchestra performed each evening.

As American women were fighting for the right to vote in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Turner Ladies were standing up for rights of their own, writes Becker. When it came time for upkeep on the exterior of Turner Hall in 1899, the women made sure their voice was heard. A gift of $2,000 would be given to the project as long as the ladies were part of the planning. Once the project was complete, the women paid the money promised.

The first bazaar was one of many fundraising events, writes Becker. The longest running event would be serving at Stiftungsfest. The ladies took over serving the meal at this event in 1894. The cost of the meal was 25 cents per person.

Over time, fund raising has also included: cookbook sales; Maifest; Gartenfest; Musikantenfest; July 4th in the Park, Labor Day celebration; Cashwise brat stand; food stand at bavarian Blast; and, the favorite of many, an annual Sauerkraut Supper…

Becker’s essay evokes the sights and smells of this iconic event: “dozens of Turner Ladies donning the famous red smocks, working together feverishly to present to dining guests a wonderful plate of food…”

“On that plate is homemade sauerkraut; chock-full of pork; two smokehouse landjaegers; specially ordered mashed potatoes… Dessert is included; fresh-baked apple strudel with an icing drizzle…”

Most recently, the Turner Ladies pledged money to Turner Hall’s capital campaign fund. The restoration and remodeling project was estimated at $1.7 million. From 2004 to 2012, the Turner Ladies donated more than $100,000 to the cause.

Funds have also supported other community causes, including the Red Cross, Camp Courage, Special Olympics, the Cancer Society’s Walk for Life, etc. The Turner Ladies assist with a Birthday Party at Oak Hills and serve cookies and juice to participants in the Turner gymnastics program…

One member, quoted by Becker, recalled that in the 1950s, when dignitaries came to New Ulm, younger members of both the Turner Ladies Society and the Turnverein would dress in white tops and black bottoms (the women in skirts, of course) to serve the meal. Etiquette was of utmost importance.

In 2011, with the completion of the Turner Hall facelift, the ladies formed a special committee to design a new dress code for serving meals. The new attire, deemed more professional and uniform in look, is black.

Current mission focus

“The Turner Ladies are a very active non-profit organization that raises funds for our number-one mission, to help Turner Hall remain a vital part of our community and continue to share our historically significant value to the region,” says current President Carol Cooper.

“We meet monthly to share camaraderie and hospitality, with a meal prepared and served by a different committee, followed by a short meeting, sharing upcoming events and miscellaneous programs.

“We have two major fund raisers each year, with the bake sale in the spring and our famous Sauerkraut Supper in fall.

“For those who have time and talents, we also set up and serve at many events such as weddings, funerals, training seminars and special interest groups who meet at Turner Hall at various times throughout the year.

“Helping with these events gives us a wonderful opportunity to help Turner Hall achieve a very important role in our community.

“These events also help to maintain our ever popular gymnastics program which includes hundreds of children, not only from New Ulm but also from other communities,” adds Cooper.

New members welcome

When Becker asked members why they joined, most ladies replied along the lines of, “mother was a member, and it was a rite of passage to join” or “as a kid, I remember the holiday picnics and parties, so joining was like giving back for all the fun I had.”

But both Becker and Cooper make the point that the Turner Ladies Society is not a closed organization. Until October 2009, new members were proposed by a current member and voted in by the membership, but that is no longer the case. New members no longer need to be voted in.

The Turner Ladies actively welcome new members. They are planning a membership drive in June, with a Ladies Night Out for those interested in checking it out, and, as Cooper says, in “having fun in the process.”

(The membership drive date is Thursday, June 12, 5-7 p.m.)

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