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–by Don Kennon

Congressman Fred Schwengel of Iowa (May 28, 1906 – April 1, 1993), the founding president of the United States Capitol Historical Society, was proud of his German heritage. His father immigrated to the United States from Germany in the early 1900s, just a few years before Fred was born on a farm near Sheffield, Iowa. In oral history interviews conducted by Frank van der Linden in the early 1980s, Congressman Schwengel recounted how he had been shaped by his German heritage. A few sample excerpts from those interviews follow.

Fred Schwengel in the Capitol’s rotunda, c. 1980s, with USCHS’ first publication, a guidebook to the Capitol.

Q. Mr. Schwengel, let’s start from the very beginning. Let’s start with your birth, and boyhood, and parents, all your background.

Schwengel: Well, I was born outside of Sheffield, Iowa, about three miles south and a little east of what was called the Bird Farm, May 28, 1906, I think. For some reason, they did not record my birth at the courthouse, so I am using that date as the correct date, which I believe it was. My father and mother were both immigrants from Germany. They knew each other in Germany. My mother came several years before my father. I have never established, for sure, that he came over here because of my mother. … He came from Westerstede, which is in the province of Oldenburg, not far from Bremen, probably about 70 kilometers.

Q. What was your father’s first name?

Schwengel: My father’s first name was Gerhardt.

Q. What was your mother’s name?

Schwengel: My mother’s name was Marguerite. She was known by the name of “Mattie” and her maiden name was Stover. The Schwengel name is interesting, also. I should insert that here. It is spelled the German way, “S-c-h-w-e-n-g-e-l.” The name “Schwengel” is really the bolster part of a wagon. I mention that because my family are descendants of the Zwingli family, the same family as Ulrich Zwingli, the Reformer. I believe, according to my father, that we were descendants of his brother. Ulrich, of course, was the great Protestant reformer at the time of Martin Luther, in Switzerland. It’s the Swiss version of spelling, “Z-w” instead of “S-c-h-w” as in German. My father was an interesting man, and it may be worthwhile to recall why he came to America. Both my parents were members of the Baptist church in Germany. That’s different, because normally Germans are either Lutheran or Roman Catholic. But my father came from a Protestant group that believed in the Free Church. I like to think, although I have not established this, that there is a direct line of thought dating back to Ulrich, because this was his belief.

. . .

Q. How did they happen to go to Iowa? Was it free land? Obviously fertile land?

Schwengel: Germans, if you know anything about them, are kind of clannish.
So, for some reason members of the family and friends came to Sheffield. That was a good farming area and it was fairly easy to get to by train in that period, soon after the Civil War. They were all Baptists, German Baptists, that came there. Later some Lutherans came there also. But the German Baptists congregated there. My father left after he had served two years in the Kaiser’s army. He did not believe in military service. He was drafted and forced to serve. He said many times that he wanted to raise a family in a place where they would not be drafted into the service, not required to give military service.

My father never lost his interest in religion. This is an interesting thing. We always had worship service every morning, in German, at breakfast time. We sat around the breakfast table. My father would have a Bible reading, and sometimes a little lesson with it. Well, there were days when you couldn’t go out and plow—it would rain or there would be a snowstorm, or something. That was the day we sat around the table and our father would talk to us. Often, he talked about how fortunate he was that he came to America so that we could be born in this great country. He talked about being involved. Immediately, when he came here, I later found out, he made application for citizenship. In five years he passed his examination and became a citizen. He was as proud as he could be to be a citizen of America. He told us about that very often. By this time we were in this country school, District Number Nine, West Fork township, Franklin County, and, by golly, as soon as he became a citizen, they elected him to the school board. You know, he never ceased talking about that—the recognition and opportunity he could have. This sort of thing didn’t happen in Germany. And yet we got the feeling that he was also proud of his German association.

Q. You say he spoke German in the worship service. Did he learn English, too?

Schwengel: Oh, yes, he did, but in the home we all talked German. In fact, he had a sign printed, and framed just outside the main door, as you walked in you read it, there it hit you:


And he meant it! I kind of resented that, because, when I started school in the country school, I could not speak the American language.

Schwengel returned to Iowa after graduating from college and teaching for a few years. This early 1940s shows him (3rd from left) with the Jaycees, one of several benevolent organizations to which he belonged.

Fred, of course, learned English and went on to high school—leaving home and boarding with neighbors because his father objected to him going to school when his brothers stayed home to work on the farm. After attending college, teaching history and civics in high school, establishing a successful insurance practice, and entering politics, Fred and his father would reconcile. As these brief excerpts reveal, Fred would come to understand the influence of his German heritage and his father’s immigrant experience on his own development. As a member of Congress in 1962, Fred Schwengel would lead the effort to establish the U.S. Capitol Historical Society. The Society plans several programs to observe its 50th Anniversary in 2012. Among them will be posting the complete audio recordings and print transcripts of Fred Schwengel’s oral history interviews. Look for those in early 2012 at www.uschs.org.