Remembering the Rathskeller

Sunday, March 20, 2005 - by Harmon Jolley
The Rathskeller restaurant was on the first floor of the Turner Club at 618 Cherry Street.  Click to enlarge.
The Rathskeller restaurant was on the first floor of the Turner Club at 618 Cherry Street. Click to enlarge.
- photo by Courtesy of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Library

Albert Schlickling loved his native Germany. Born in Saarbrucken in 1888, he grew up in a culture that he characterized as one that valued hard work, yet also cherished fun times with family and friends. However, by the time that Mr. Schlickling reached his twenty-first birthday, the political climate of Germany had changed. Realizing that he did not want to remain a citizen under such a government, he responded to a letter from an aunt who lived in Chattanooga, and moved to the United States in 1909.

“I found his name listed on the manifest of a ship that came to Ellis Island,” said Mrs. Evelyn Jonakin in a recent interview. “Mr. Albert,” as she called him, was Mrs. Jonakin’s beloved stepfather. A check of www.ellisisland.org showed that Mr. Schlickling departed from Antwerp aboard the Lapland, and first saw the Statue of Liberty on September 5, 1909. Mrs. Jonakin said, “He was so proud of Chattanooga. He said that its scenery reminded him of Germany.”

Mr. Schlickling went to work for the Chattanooga Brewery, which was located on the west side of Broad Street between Second and Third Streets. He became a member of the local Turnverein Club, which was a social and athletic organization of German immigrants. In 1888, the club had erected a building at 618 Cherry Street. Upstairs was a gymnasium, while a restaurant/saloon occupied the lower level.

The 1910’s was a difficult decade for Mr. Schlickling. The advent of Prohibition turned off the taps of the Chattanooga Brewery and Mr. Schlickling’s employment there. The Great World War raged in Europe, with Germany and the United States on opposite sides. Mr. Schlickling faced numerous taunts and insults due to his German heritage. “He was self-conscious of being German, “said Mrs. Jonakin. “He would only speak German when other Germans were around.”

Prohibition was repealed in December, 1933. Mr. Schlickling saw a business opportunity to bring back a restaurant at the Turner Club building. He was familiar with the “rathskellers” of his native Germany. Mrs. Jonakin recalled, “The “rath” was the word for “city hall,” and there was usually a restaurant in the basement (“skeller”) where the officials ate.”

In 1935, Mr. Schlickling opened the Rathskeller on the first floor of the Turner Club. A club member had operated a tin shop there. “It was filthy,” Mr. Schlickling said in a Sept. 1, 1960 interview with the Chattanooga Times. “Everyone told me that I would go bankrupt, but I gave Chattanooga what it wanted – a good restaurant.” Mrs. Jonakin noted that, to her knowledge, Mr. Schlickling had no prior restaurant experience.

Back when the Chattanooga Brewery had folded, Mr. Schlickling had purchased several of its furnishings. They found a new home in the Rathskeller. He was also an avid collector of German beer steins, stuffed and mounted animals, and Bavarian paintings. All of those were displayed on the walls of his restaurant. The Feb. 28, 1970 Chattanooga Times noted that “old-timers around town can remember when that wall was covered with the words to German songs.”

Mrs. Jonakin recalled other details of the Rathskeller. “As one entered the restaurant, there was a deli counter where customers could buy grilled smoked sausages and pickled pigs’ knuckles.” A partition separated the bar from the dining area. There was a picture of dogs sitting at a bar; however, the Rathskeller bar patrons had to stand. The restaurant had high ceilings, and tables with red-checked cloths.

At night, there were sing-alongs with Early Maxwell on the accordion and McConnell Erwin (blind since birth) on piano. Saint Patrick’s Day was always the main day of each year.” She also recalled that with a few exceptions, such as sausages, sauerkraut, and apple strudel, Mr. Schlickling featured American food and specialized in “good steaks.” A Bavarian Room was later added in the basement of the Turner Club. Michelob and Lowenbrau were on tap.

During World War II, Mr. Schlickling again faced the anti-German feelings of some. However, according to Mrs. Jonakin, “he did all kinds of things for soldiers. He was one to help others, because he felt that so many had helped him.” Mr. Schlickling’s devotion to others allowed him to have a low employee turnover. “One man, Mr. Sayer, was still making sandwiches there when he was ninety,” Mrs. Jonakin commented.

Mrs. Jonakin’s father had died when she was two years old. In 1943, her mother moved back to Chattanooga, and renewed her friendship with Mr. Schlickling. They were married in 1949. Her mother often helped at the restaurant.

Five years before his death, Mr. Schlickling sold the Rathskeller in 1960 to local entrepreneurs J. M. Branum (who would later become the proprietor of Yesterday’s restaurant/bar) and Coleman Kelley. The new owners maintained much of the menu and décor of the Rathskeller exactly as Mr. Schlickling had left it.

Customers were saddened by news in 1970 that the downtown Rathskeller would close, but would re-open in a few months on Frazier Avenue (those plans never materialized). On December 24, 1970, the “last day specials” at the Rathskeller were
New England clam chowder, apple strudel, corned beef and cabbage, breaded veal cutlet, fillet of flounder, baked ham, and turkey sandwiches. The Turner Club building suffered a fire in 1972, and was razed in 1973 to make room for the Hamilton County Jail.

If you have memories of the Rathskeller or of Mr. Albert Schlickling, please send me an e-mail at jolleyh@signaldata.net.


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