In honor of our county’s 200th birthday, The Gasconade County Historical Society will be publishing an article each month about the history, events and/or stories of our county. We hope you enjoy them.
The year was 1838. A young man of 19 boarded a ship in the German port of Bremen, bound for America. As a member of the German Settlement Society of Philadelphia, Charles Dietrich Eitzen knew he was headed to the Society’s new town named Hermann in the new state of Missouri. Other than that, his future was unknown.
Charles arrived in Hermann with 19 cents in his pocket and his meager belongings. Soon after arrival, he acquired a job in a local mercantile store owned by Mr. H. W. D. Wiedersprecer. He began his employment as a clerk and general laborer, but also learned the business. Several years later, when Mr. Wiedersprecer became ill, he sold his business to the young Mr. Eitzen. The mercantile was a financial success, as Herman enjoyed bustling river traffic, as well as land travelers headed west. The travelers brought news from the East and surrounding areas. When Charles heard of the massive iron ore deposits discovered in the area now known as Sullivan, and the first iron blast furnace near the city of today’s St. James, he saw an opportunity. There was a need for a profitable way to get the pig iron from where it was mined to the steel mills in Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania.
Charles applied for and was hired as the Agent for Meramec Iron Works. He arranged for the pig iron to be hauled north by mule train and ox wagons from Crawford County along the Old Iron Road, to Hermann, where it was loaded onto steamboats. The steamboats sailed the Missouri, Mississippi and the Ohio rivers and delivered the ore to the steel-making regions east of the Mississippi. On their return trip via the rivers, they brought back tools, staples and other goods not found on the frontier. These Charles sold through his store. Some years later when the white pine lumber from Gasconade County was in demand in St. Louis and points East, Eitzen used the same system of transportation to deliver the lumber to market. His business endeavors made him a wealthy man.
In April, 1844, Charles married Miss Jane Kehr, also of Gasconade County. The couple had seven children, but like so many families of that time, only three lived to adulthood. In 1871, Charles built a family crypt where his children were buried. Later, he and Jane and several other relatives would also be laid to rest there. The crypt has been restored and can be seen in Hermann’s historic City Cemetery.
Mr. Eitzen was also extremely civic-minded. He served two terms on the Missouri Constitution Convention, where he labored against secession, and in 1876 he was elected to the Missouri Legislature. He was Master of the local Masons lodge for 16 years. For 25 years, he served on (in today’s terms), the City Council, and was Mayor for most of those years. Mr. Eitzen served on the school board and spearheaded the fundraiser to acquire money to build the German School, and then lobbied the state legislature to allow it to operate as a bilingual school, where lessons could be taught in both German and English. During the Civil War, he was captain of a local militia group.
Charles Eitzen was generous with his money as well as his time and leadership. He donated the land for Hermann’s first City Park. In his will, he left the County $50,000 for construction of a courthouse, a sum that would be over $10 million in today’s dollars. The courthouse still stands today and is in use by county officials. Of the 3,143 courthouses in the United States, Gasconade County’s is the only one built entirely by private funds.
Charles Dietrich Eitzen passed away Jan. 1, 1896, at the age of 77 from complications of a stroke he had suffered several years earlier. Mr. Eitzen was an entrepreneur, philanthropist, statesman and influential public servant. Thank you, Mr. Eitzen, for your contributions to Gasconade County.