By Robin Wallace
History is subjective, and that certainly includes family history. The stories that are passed down from generation to generation are those that are deemed suitable (whether consciously or unconsciously) to become a part of the threads that weave the tapestry of a family’s narrative.
My great-grandfather Ferdinand Zimmerer came to the United States via Ellis Island in 1906. A butcher by trade, Ferdinand eventually gained employment at the Fischer Packing Company, and worked there as a sausage maker. During my quest to flesh out the story of the Zimmerer family in Louisville, and Ferdinand in particular, I uncovered a dusty little corner of family history that had never been recounted to me over the kitchen table talks at Grandma’s house: the story of Ferdinand Zimmerer, Socialist Labor Party leader.
I first stumbled upon a hint of this part of Ferdinand’s past when researching the 1920 census, and noticed that he was enumerated twice in the same year; he was enumerated once at home, and once in jail! When questioned, my mother replied that she knew that there were often strikes at Fischer's, but was not sure why Ferdinand had been jailed, and had never even heard of the incident. Some years, later, researching a query for a Filson patron, I stumbled upon an article in The Filson Newsmagazine written by my former colleague in Special Collections, Jacob Lee. When Jacob was an intern, he wrote an informative article on the Filson’s (then) newly acquired American Legion, Jefferson Post #15 collection. Reading the article, I was surprised to see the name Ferdinand Zimmerer appear before my eyes, as Jacob recounted the American Legion’s penchant for actively investigating suspected political radicals, and the subsequent arrest in 1920 of nineteen such persons in Louisville.
“An examination of local newspapers revealed that the government arrested nineteen radicals, mostly socialists, in Louisville and then released all but three – Albert Gander, Ignatius Hager, and Ferdinand Zimmerer. It is presently unknown if Gander, Hager, and Zimmerer were convicted and deported, but Jefferson Post had little doubt that they were in fact “alien plotters.” [i]
I finally had an explanation for Ferdinand’s time in jail, and decided to further investigate his activity in the Socialist Labor Party. The Socialist Labor Party was formed in the United States 1876, and was highly popular with German trade workers in Louisville.[ii] The Filson’s holdings on the Socialist Labor Party include a Treasurer’s Book, 1897-1907 of the German section of the Louisville SLP. Alas, I could find no reference to Ferdinand, but I did note with a chuckle that the records indicate that the section’s money went towards beer and cigars, as well as dues for the national organization in New York, stationery supplies, and meeting hall rentals. The William Benjamin Harrison scrapbook also contains a Socialist Labor party pamphlet from 1931, but this did not reveal anything about my great-grandfather.
However, the pieces of this story continued to fall into place when I read the Louisville Encyclopedia’s entry for the Fischer Packing Company: “During World War I, [Henry] Fischer, a member of the Socialist Labor Party, opposed American entry into the conflict. This prompted a federal investigation that was dropped after the intervention of top labor leaders….Fischer’s good labor relations had earned friends among the unions.”[iii]
Finally, a perusal of the Internet uncovered two very interesting pieces of information. Ourcampaigns.com revealed that Ferdinand Zimmerer was the Socialist Labor Party’s candidate for senator in the 1936 Kentucky election, garnering 271 votes (or .03% of the vote). And a search result from archive.com contained a pamphlet from the twentieth convention of the Socialist Labor Party in 1940 that had this to say about my great-grandfather:
“In Memoriam. Death has again thinned our ranks during the last year. As though victims of the social storms raging, a full score of our comrades have fallen, "like leaves in wintry weather." Section Louisville, Ky., already hard beset, lost two members who were among the oldest and, in their days, the most active and loyal S.L.P. men, Ferdinand Zimmerer and Louis Fleischer.”
Ferdinand had passed away March 28, 1939. I’m sure that the controversial nature of Socialism, and subsequently the anti-German sentiments following the first and second World Wars had a great deal to do with Ferdinand’s past being swept under the rug. But our family story feels richer for uncovering these forgotten moments of the past, and this is only one small example of how many forgotten and hidden facets of history may be hiding in archives and repositories.