I had the opportunity of visiting the German-American Club last weekend. Tucked away on Pierce Street off Walnut, it is a fairly non-descript, white building with bold, black letters that read, “German-American Club”. I had always been curious about the club and its origins and how it came to be know as the German-American Club. Did they have oompah bands? Would they like to participate in the Oktoberfest? Did they speak German there? Was it even still in existence? As I asked around, I learned that the club was, indeed, still in existence. I have only been to a few social clubs and have found the mystic of their membership intriguing. I made a point to go last Saturday and I was warmly welcomed– eventually.
I rang the buzzer and Karen, the barmaid and President of the Club, looked suspiciously through the window, hit her buzzer to let me in and then asked, “What can I do for you?” “My name is Andy Szekely; I’m the mayor and I’m working on a writing project that looks at the social clubs in town.” “The mayor of Lansdale is dead, ” someone proclaimed (although I have been the mayor for three and a half years, the previous mayor served for 26 years and passed away recently). “No, he’s not” K.C. stated, “I saw this him last week do a wedding at the Cannoneers’ Club. He’s legit.” I could see that this affirmation didn’t ease their apprehension. Was I sent by the police? Had someone complained about the club to the mayor? Ordering a Coors light was my olive branch to Karen. I then sat down next to K.C., and I explained to them my reason for coming to their club.
The decor of the club is sixties retro with dark, tobacco-stained, pine paneling, a Steelers helmet cutout (Steelers?), a Phillies license plate, Miller Genuine Draft message boards, a few sepia photos of the the club’s history and in the middle, a horseshoe-shaped, formica topped bar. Near the cash register were the daily logs of visitors in spiral bound notebooks. Nothing pretentious whatsoever: a classic neighborhood bar. Just imagine any Bruce Springsteen song and this is it.
“Tell me about the German-American Club,” I asked, and slowly the floodgates opened and one by one their stories unfolded at the bar. The most talkative was a biker with mutton chops and wearing his Iron Eagles colors. He told me about the tradition of throwing change up into the center beam molding, and then every year he would climb and collect it and that would be the money for Toys for Tots. The Club started in 1937 and was known orginally as the German Club given the German history of southeastern Pennsylvania, but because of the anti-German sentiment at the onset of World War II, the name was changed to the German-American Club. The club’s bylaws were orginally written in German, and according to Karen, they had a heck of time getting them translated correctly. And according to the by laws, when the club expires the proceeds of the sale of the building– after all debts are paid– will go to a German ophanage (actually, I later found out that proceeds will go to the local hospital, but I like the original story better).
Another one of the stories I heard– actually in Wilson’s Hardware store– about the German-American Club was that in the seventies, somehow the combination for the safe was lost and they couldn’t open the safe at the Club. Being a more intimate town back then, word spread and a certain resident, who was known for his safecracking skills, was contacted. He agreed to open the safe on one condition: that he be left alone for forty-five minutes with no one to observe his craft. The Club really had no other choice and away to work he went. An hour and half passed. What could he be doing up there? With his checkered past, they decided to go in; after all this was a safe with money in it. Every cent was accounted for, but the safecracker was gone and so was a bottle of whiskey from the bar. Payment off the books for a job well done.
I enjoyed my visit to the German-American Club and the hospitality they offered me. As Linda, the Vice-President and manager, showed me around she mentioned, “We’ve thought about remodeling, but some of the nostalgia would be lost.” Like an old boot that is worn and threadbare, but comfortable and familiar, I couldn’t agree with her more. And no, they don’t speak German.