Turn Verein: the original Grand Junction gymSep 27, 2021 02:36PM ● By Joe Zeni
Turn Verein gymnastics room in Turner Hall, Milwaukee, ca. 1900
Grand Junction's German fitness center offered dances and gymnastics
Present day Grand Junction offers a plethora of exercise options for those seeking to improve strength, increase endurance, lose weight and maintain general health. While workout stations and gyms are now common, it wasn’t always so.
In 1908, a new YMCA building opened up at Fifth Street and Rood Avenue, replete with a swimming pool, basketball court, a gymnasium for weightlifters and an indoor running track. Aspiring athletes and fitness addicts relished the thought of the all-in-one, self-improvement opportunity at the local institution.
Yet, there was an even earlier institution available for those wanting to flex their muscles “at the gym.” It was called the Turn Verein.
Following the political and social upheaval of mid-19th century Europe, the United States saw an influx of refugees fleeing persecution, primarily Germans. These immigrants brought with them their cultural and intellectual history, uniquely expressed in the form of a club devoted to promoting political activism and physical fitness.
Turn Verein (which translates to “gymnastics union”) groups sprang up in big cities and attracted tens of thousands of participants. By the end of the century, the movement had filtered into smaller communities and began to concentrate on gymnastic demonstrations, fitness classes, establishing physical education in public schools, and German cultural awareness.
The Grand Junction founders, about 20 strong, were all prominent local entrepreneurs of German ancestry. They began offering exercise classes, gymnastics demonstrations and a bewildering array of social events to the public as early as October 1893.
The Grand Junction “Turners” were originally housed in a small brick building at Third Street and Colorado Avenue that was remodeled into a first-class gymnasium with a stage for music and performances. They quickly outgrew the facility and moved east to an auditorium known as “the armory.”
Many public events were held on that stage. But when the building became dilapidated, the Turners constructed a new, modern facility. “Turner Halle” opened on June 22, 1899, on Main Street between First and Second Streets, where a statue of John Otto now stands. The building served the club for more than a decade.
Turn Verein sponsored its first dance accompanied by a small orchestra in early November 1893. The dance’s success spawned increased club membership and activities both at the hall and an outdoor venue called Wurtz’s Grove (later Lotz’s Grove), a popular picnicking area on the banks of the Colorado River. Members built wooden platforms for dancing and even installed some rudimentary lighting among the cottonwoods to accommodate late night dancing.
Amusements for the whole family was another hallmark of their programming. Periodic “Turnfests” offered bicycle races, foot races, sack races, pole walking, pie eating and even a greasy pig contest. Evening dances featured live music, with popular local orchestras playing sometimes into the early morning.
Christmastime brought annual celebrations, complete with decorations, German refreshments and the traditional tannenbaum (Christmas tree). Children were promised a gift from St. Nicholas as German and American traditions merged.
Turn Verein celebrated other holidays through the years. Halloween parties were a staple with candy and costumes. May Day and spring festivities were also annual events. Valentine’s Day, Labor Day and Peach Days were marked for city-wide celebration as well with dances, masquerade balls, socials, picnics, fireworks and ice cream parties. One unique event—a calico dance—called for the ladies to wear a calico dress to dance the night away, then donate the garment to the needy.
The Fourth of July was marked for special celebration as the descendants of German heritage were eager to demonstrate their patriotism and love of their adopted country. Competitions of all sorts were held. Along with the traditional running and jumping events, there were potato races, wheelbarrow races, rope climbing, tug of war and a new test of skill and athleticism called the “pole high jump.”
Songs, stories, dress and traditional German beer, wiener and sauerkraut were common in any get-together. Many American-born citizens joined the group and social events were always open to all residents. Events proved to be a valuable source of revenue for the Turners, which they invested into the organization.
Feats of fitness
The bedrock of Turn Verein was always a vested interest in promoting physical fitness. At many events, time was carved out for a special gymnastics presentation by members. Tumbling, acrobatics, feats of strength and balance, swinging, vaulting and precision work on uneven bars, parallel bars, the rings and the vault horse were always a thrilling exhibition for Grand Junction residents.
City youth as young as 6 could be enrolled in weekly classes teaching gymnastics and physical fitness. In June 1901, the local club even hosted a three-day regional convention of the Rocky Mountain Turn clubs. Special trains brought in hundreds of outside visitors, and picnics, awards ceremonies and exhibitions of strength and skill were offered around the city. Another convention was held a decade later, also in Grand Junction.
With the coming of World War I and rising anti-German sentiment, competition from the YMCA, the absence of their own building, and declining public interest, the Grand Junction Turn Verein faded from public prominence by the 1920s.
Sometime this month, as you celebrate the completion of a workout or class at the gym, head down to your favorite watering hole and raise a glass to the original Grand Junction gym—the German one, Turn Verein.