What We’re Reading: “Theodore F. Thieme, A Man and His Times”

Sue Slick, Collection Information Specialist

A black and white photograph of Theodore Thieme. He wears a suit and top hat. His large overcoat is black, and he sports a moustache.
FWMoA Archive image of Theodore Thieme.
Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

While “hunkering down” in quarantine, I decided to read the biography of one of our museum’s founding fathers, Theodore F. Thieme: A Man and His Times by Ross F. Lockridge, 1942.  Most of us know of Thieme as the President of the Wayne Knitting Mills and the philanthropist who gave his home to the Fort Wayne Art School and Museum in 1920. His biography paints an interesting portrait of our founder — a fun-loving boy who became a hardworking, meticulous, and generous industrialist.

He was born in a rented house at the northeast corner of Calhoun Street and Jefferson Boulevard, and grew up at 816 West Berry Street. He must have loved the neighborhood, because the Queen Anne style home he built many years later was just two blocks west, at 1026 West Berry Street, of the home where he and his siblings shared so many happy times.  Theodore’s industrious German immigrant father, who ran a clothing operation at the corner of Columbia and Clinton Streets which included both manufacturing and retail elements, would be the role model for Theodore. Theodore would become one of the most important business figures in the City’s history and a world-renown manufacturer of hosiery.

Theodore and his many siblings had the run of the neighborhood of up-and-coming business folk and their families, many who were immigrants from Germany and Ireland. His boyhood was filled with piano lessons, frequent German Lutheran church attendance, schooling at the Concordia College and, during the summer, swimming in the old aqueduct that straddled the Saint Mary’s River, where the railroad trestle is now.  Later in life, Thieme liked to tell stories of the canal boat characters and sights he experienced during that brief time the canal was in use. Theodore was one of the founding members of the Old Aqueduct Club, and helped finance its monument at Main and Rockhill Streets.

As a young adult, while seeking his calling in life, Theodore denied his mother’s wishes and chose music over the ministry. When that path proved unrealistic, despite being a talented musician, he sprang at an opportunity to work in a Grand Rapids drugstore run by a family friend.  This may have started his appetite for travel, learning, and the drive to master and understand all aspects of a trade. He soon realized he needed a sound education to continue as a druggist, however, so his father sent him to pharmacy school in New York.

Theodore’s time in New York also exposed him to the wider world of art and music, fostering life-long passions for both.  During his time in the East, he also attended his first world’s fair — the Centennial Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia. He would attend every international exposition and world’s fair that occurred over the subsequent six decades; not just for entertainment, but as opportunities to gather information and absorb culture, ideas, and innovations that he would apply to his own enterprises for the rest of his life.

Upon graduation from the New York College of Pharmacy, Theodore’s frolic in the big city ended, and he returned to Fort Wayne to the safe bosom of his strict Lutheran family.  He clerked at the Meyer Brother’s drugstore for two years — the proprietors were family friends within the German community. When he turned 21, he made an extended tour of Europe, visiting his German family and many of the great cities and cultural sites, keeping a detailed diary of the journey and making lots of friends along the way.  He was most likely a jolly bon vivant; gregarious, charming, and great fun as a companion. These traits would take him far in life.  He returned to Fort Wayne broke but “wide awake” to the world of art, culture, music, and civic-mindedness. And though he now found Fort Wayne a bit dull, his father helped him to purchase the old Nill Drug Store (on Calhoun Street just south of the alley beside Pint and Slice) and to launch himself as a young businessman in his hometown. In a couple of years, he (with Dad’s help) purchased the building at the southwest corner of Calhoun and Wayne Streets for a larger drugstore. In 1888, the second floor of this building would house the painting and sketching classes taught by John Ottis Adams that would evolve into the Fort Wayne Art School and Museum. 

This black and white photo shows the Thieme Pharmacy in 1889.
The Thieme Pharmacy. Photo courtesy of the Fort Wayne News, 1889.

For over a decade, Thieme prospered as a druggist, enjoyed life as a popular young bachelor, and saved his money.  His pharmacy and apartment above were favorite gathering places for the “best” young men of the city with their silk top hats, waxed mustaches, and “penny-farthing” bicycles. His friends from the Fort Wayne Bicycle Club, one of the most popular organizations in the city, gathered at the pharmacy’s soda fountain to smoke cigars and sip the “mildly exhilarating” Thieme’s Mead dispensed alongside the best apothecary products in town.  Musical gatherings in his apartment were a regular occurrence — Theodore on his piano, his friends accompanying on other instruments — some from the music store down the block.  So, it was a big surprise to his friends and family when, in 1890, he sold his interest in the store and left this lively setting for Europe. Wanting more from life than running a drugstore, he had quietly planned to find the perfect manufacturing opportunity to bring to the U.S. following the signing of the McKinley Protective Tariff Law.  This law hoped to make manufacturing in America more competitive for industries that were predominantly Europe-based, and Theodore was set to help it succeed.

Through his connections in Germany, and after much deliberation and bargaining, he began the process of bringing advanced German knitting machinery and skilled labor to the U.S., though, initially, he had planned to bring the full-fashioned hosiery business to Philadelphia, not Fort Wayne. When the city fathers got wind of that, they converged with incentives and funding that changed Thieme’s plan.

The road to success was long and fraught with obstacles, challenges, and betrayals; but, Thieme prevailed, ultimately employing some 2,500 in multiple mills and producing hosiery that was known from coast to coast. In fact, in 1905, his output would have reached from coast to coast and back if laid end-to-end — more than 12 million stockings! Thieme’s mills thrived, employing many in good jobs — including women who worked at the mills for decent wages. Thieme was also a pioneer of industrial welfare — employee benefits and profit-sharing, though he expected near perfection from his workers. And though there were strikes and some discontent over the years, many of his staff stayed with him for their entire working careers.

This colored postcard shows the Wayne Knitting Mills in 1908.
The Wayne Knitting Mills, 1908. Image courtesy of the Allen County Public Library, Harter Postcard Collection.

In addition to his business acumen and tireless dedication to his companies, Thieme found countless hours to devote to efforts to improve city and state government.  His numerous travels to the world’s great cities compelled him to bring the City Beautiful movement to Fort Wayne by launching a riverfront beautification project.  With the help of George Kessler, renowned city planner, Thieme beautified the once blighted stretch of the Saint Mary’s riverbank just south of the Main Street Bridge. 

We can thank Thieme for the civic inspirations gathered during his many visits to Stockholm, Dresden, Paris, and other great cities of the world as the City Beautiful movement continued to improve Fort Wayne with Kessler’s development of the Fort Wayne Park and Boulevard system.

This drawing shows the residence of Theodore Thieme at Rockhill and Berry in Fort Wayne. The Queen Anne style building housed the Art School from 1920 to 1991.
Thieme residence at the corner of Rockhill and Berry Streets, home of the Fort Wayne Art School from 1920 to 1991. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

We also can thank Theodore Thieme for, not just the home he gave, but the foresight in establishing a new organization and funding scheme for the Fort Wayne Art School and Museum. As a mature and successful businessman by this time, he foresaw the need for civic engagement and disciplined order to establish an enduring, robust institution.  The school lives on at Purdue Fort Wayne and the Fort Wayne Museum of Art now approaches its second century.

The biography, long out of print, is available at the Allen County Public Library.  More on Theodore Thieme can be read here and here here.

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