Frederick Alms

Frederick Alms, a native Cincinnatian born in 1839, graduated from Woodward High School and began to work for an uncle in the dry goods business. He heard Abraham Lincoln’s “bugle blast” in 1861 and enlisted in the Union Army, along with his cousin William Doepke. Their regiment, the Sixth Ohio Volunteers, saw hard service in Kentucky and Tennessee, especially during the Battles of Shiloh, Chattanooga, and Stones River – losing over 40% of the regiment in that last battle alone. After three years the pair mustered out and returned to Cincinnati.

Frederick Alms resumed his career as a salesman in the Cincinnati dry goods business as the war ground on in 1864. At the end of the war in 1865, he joined with his younger brother William and their cousin William Doepke to found the dry goods company Alms and Doepke, thanks mostly to a loan of the considerable sum of $10,000 from their parents. The young men expended $200 of their own money to fix up a one-story store front in 1865. The partners found that their relatively small capital, compared to established competitors, turned out to be a competitive advantage. Prices for clothing and other cotton products had soared during the war owing to the lack of production in the Southern cotton fields, but fell dramatically after cotton cultivation resumed. Alms and Doepke’s lean stock meant that the young men sold quickly, and used the revenue to buy more goods at lower prices, while the huge initial orders of their competitors required higher retail prices to cover their costs. By 1869 their store had grown to a four-story establishment – with an elevator for goods and customers. Before the end of the century, Alms and Doepke surpassed John Shillito’s company to become the largest wholesale and retail department store not only in Cincinnati, but in the state of Ohio.

Fredrick Alms, like many successful entrepreneurs during reconstruction, engaged in a number of other large businesses – many of them related to the dry goods store. He acted as a director of the Cincinnati Southwestern Railroad Company, a rail line to Chattanooga built by the City of Cincinnati with an initial $10 million bond levy passed in 1869. Completed in the late 1870’s, and (still) owned by the city of Cincinnati, the railroad reconnected Cincinnati with the commerce of the South after the Civil war; the line to Chattanooga provided a more direct connection than the antebellum route down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. The railroad certainly facilitated the large wholesale dry goods business Frederick ran with his brother and cousin. He was also director of the Main Street Railroad Company, a local route that likewise served the Alms and Doepke Company locally by providing mass transit from the top of the hills to the large downtown store at Main Street at the Canal. Frederick Alms served as President of the Argonaut cotton mill in Covington, Kentucky, another business with obvious connections to the dry goods concern. He also had an interest in the Hotel business of Albert Corre, who managed some of the finest hotels in downtown Cincinnati including the Gibson House and the Grand Hotel. Alms would open his own hotel in Walnut Hills in 1891, the subject of a post coming soon.

Alms also maintained a full range of philanthropic activities. He served a term as the President of the Board of Cincinnati Hospital, and spent money and energy on the YMCA in Cincinnati and around the country. He especially embraced German charities, including the German Kindergarten Association, the German Protestant Orphan Asylum, the Bodmann Widows’ Home and the German Protestant Home for Aged Men, all in the hilltop suburbs. His wife, nee Eleanora C. Unzicker, joined the board of “Lady Managers” of the widow’s home around the time of its foundation in 1881. Her husband’s most active charitable business interest, was the Widow’s Home: “Mr. Alms knew that the old German widows wanted a German home, and that they wanted German cooking, German nurses, German doctors, and attendants who spoke always German.” He acted as Treasurer of the organization which conducted internal business in German, and grew the endowment from $5,000 in 1881 to $66,000 in 1898. Frederick and Elenora also threw themselves into the largely German musical scene, including the May Festivals, the College of Music downtown, Music Hall, and crucial support for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

Alms and his wife bought a mansion in Walnut Hills in 1884, on McMillan at what is now Victory Parkway, just a few blocks South of the African American Elm Street School. Already renamed Elmwood after Cincinnati annexed Walnut Hills in 1870, the street would become Alms Place after Fredrick Alms died in 1898. Two doors north lived Robert Gordon, the wealthy African American coal dealer; across the gully that would be filled in to create Victory Parkway, Alms could see the estate of his dry-goods competitor Henry Pogue, on Park Avenue.

Walnut Hills had long included a strong German presence, especially in the Village of Woodburn east of what is now De Sales corner with its large Catholic church dedicated in 1879 by a congregation organized in 1849. Alms was a Lutheran, a member of the English Lutheran Church downtown – surprisingly, most German Protestants in the city chose the Evangelical Protestant Church. In 1888 Frederick Alms was one of the founders of the Walnut Hills Lutheran Church at Locust and Lane, now Calvary Baptist at the corner of William Howard Taft and Stanton. Despite this local congregation, it seems that Alms remained close to the pastor of the downtown church.

Alms also played a significant role in the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Civil War veterans, and its post in the Odd Fellows Hall at Peebles Corner. This “Fred C. Jones Post,” named after a Walnut Hills native killed in the War, was organized in 1883 as the first Cincinnati branch outside of the city basin. Alms served for a year as Post Commander in 1892, a few years after E. R. Monfort.

Alms provided significant financial support to his “comrades” in Walnut Hills, for example allowing its members to attend the annual “Encampment” of the GAR held in Washington, DC in 1892:

“It was planned to have one hundred thousand veterans in the procession, many old soldiers were very anxious to attend, as it would give them an opportunity to visit the National Capitol, which they loved. But many were too poor to pay their railroad expenses. Mr. Alms came forward very generously, and paid the railroad fare of every soldier in the Post who could not afford to pay his own expenses. There were about two hundred members of the Post at this time, and many were made very happy by Mr. Alms’ generosity.”

In 1891 Alms also guaranteed the financing of a book containing reminiscences of members of the Post – at the time believed to be the first such GAR publication in the country. Alms moreover acted as coeditor of the book, along with Monfort and H. B. Furness. Alms’ memories of his time in the Infantry and the Signal Corps, especially around the time of the battle of Chattanooga, contain standard fare about the hardships of horrors of war. At a time when the popular imagination began to create a romanticized military memory of the gallant soldiers of both the Blue and the Grey; however, Alms was clear that the Civil War was about slavery:

“A retrospect of the war of Secession recalls the fact that the institution of African slavery, inherited from the mother country, was its chief cause. Our independence was conceded by Great Britain November 30, 1782, but the curse of human bondage remained. Controversy and trouble over it began as early as 1699, and did not end until secession was attempted by the Southern conspirators. The great Presidential struggle in 1860 showed how the people stood on this important question. Our great statesman and patriot, Abraham Lincoln, was elected and inaugurated, and the long threatened secession of South Carolina took place. … There is no one living to-day, soldier or citizen, at that time old enough to understand the character and magnitude of the struggle, who can forget its heroic sacrifices of blood and treasure, closing with the assassination of Lincoln.”

The Fred Jones Post included a number of other movers and shakers in Walnut Hills, including the Streetcar innovator George Kerper, James Foraker, Ohio governor and US Senator, and Cincinnati Mayor John Mosby.