Peter Nicolay Jacobsen was born in Eckernfoerde, Schleswig on March 24 1833 the first of thirteen children of Claus and Dorothea (Moeller) Jacobsen. Claus was a miller as was his father, Peter Nicolaus, a wealthy and prominent man who had served his country in its war with Russia. (I couldn’t figure out what/when this war was.)
Eckernfoerde is a town on the coast of the Baltic Sea (east side of the Jutland peninsula) just north of the city of Kiel and 40 miles south of the boarder with Denmark. The population today is about 23,000 and it is a popular tourist destination.
Peter was educated in a private school at his home (a common practice I believe). He started working as a miller in the family business at an early age, traveling through Germany as superintendent of many mills there. He eventually went to Denmark, but returned when Denmark and Prussia went to war over the duchies of Schleswig-Holstein. In fact, the war began on Peter’s 15th birthday – March 24, 1848. Too young for full military service, he worked as a teamster with the army. The war lasted for three years, resulting in a Danish victory. (A second conflict erupted in 1864 and led to the cession of the two duchies to Prussia.)
Anna Gerdts was born in 1829 in Eckernfoerde, the daughter of Johann and Dorothea (Hinrichsen) Gerdts. Johann was a master cabinetmaker, but he died when Anna was only five years old. Her mother remarried a year later. I don’t know if Peter and Anna knew each other throughout their childhoods or met as young adults. On May 3, 1857 Peter and Anna were married in their hometown.
Immigration and Early Years in Iowa
Just three weeks after their marriage the young couple set out for America. I’ve often wondered why they made the decision to emigrate and how they chose to go to Davenport, Iowa. I recently discovered what I think is the explanation for their choice of destination – Anna’s older brother, Claus Heinrich, had left for America in 1852. He originally settled in New York, but by 1856 he was living in Scott County, Iowa. He must have found it to his liking and probably encouraged Anna and her future husband to come.
Peter and Anna boarded the ship Kit Carson in Hamburg, which is 75 miles south of Eckernfoerde. They left the port on the 23rd of May and arrived in New York on the 3rd of July. From there they took a steamer up the Hudson River to Albany and then the train to Davenport. (If they had come five years earlier it would have been a much more complicated journey involving several different train and boat trips. From 1850 to 1855 the miles of railroad lines had expanded dramatically.)
They first rented a farm near McCausland in Cleona Township (in far western Scott County) and then bought an 80 acre farm near Walcott in Princeton township (in the northeast corner of Scott County, along the Mississippi River). He broke the prairie with a yoke of oxen known far and wide as the best oxen in Iowa! It was at this farm the Jacobsens boarded a number of Hungarian refugees, who had fled to this country. After a time they were reinstated to citizenship by their government and then returned home.
In the fall of 1860 Peter took the foremanship of the Rusch grist mill on the Dubuque Road when Nicholas Rusch became the Lietenant Governor of Iowa. Peter held that position until 1862 when he and his family, which now included son Charles born in 1859 and daughter Dora born in 1860, moved to the city of Davenport and he started a grain business there.
On June 15, 1863 Peter rented the Farmer’s hotel, located at Locust and Division streets in Northwest Davenport. This location is still referred to as “Five Points” due to the five roads that branch off from there. For more than 45 years it was one of the marks of Scott County, being variously known as Jacobsen’s Tavern, Jacobsen’s Corner, and Pete Jacobsen’s Place.
The inn and tavern was the mecca of inbound farmers, who often made it their trading center. During the days of the prairie schooner, in the latter part of the seventies and the early part of the eighties, when western migration was at its height, this was a favorite stopping place and it was always crowded. Mr. Jacobsen’s pride and delight was to entertain these western home seekers. The son, Peter, who later became one of Davenport’s leading merchants, was bell-hop in his parent’s place. When the travelers arrived during all hours of the night, young Peter would jump out of bed, and with a kerosene lamp in hand, would direct the guests to their rooms, while his father would see that their teams were properly corralled in the large barn which adjoined the tavern. This served as an excellent training for the lad. It brought him into contact with many people, and from them he learned many things which served him well in later years.
Mr. Jacobsen popularized his place by always keeping on hand a large stock of rare old wines. He permitted no open gambling. His patrons were allowed to play for cigars and drinks – but no more. He had a bagatelle table (similar to billiards) and this was a favorite pastime.
From a 1923 newspaper story: “In years gone by Peter Jacobsen’s tavern was one of the best known establishments of its kind in the middle west. Its fame was due largely to its proprietor, one of the west’s most typical and picturesque pioneers. Mr. Jacobsen was a bosom friend of William F. Cody (Buffalo Bill) and the famous Indian fighter never came to Davenport but that he called at the tavern, hugged Mr. Jacobsen and treated the house. No two brothers were ever fonder of one another than the friendship which existed between Buffalo Bill and Mr. Jacobsen.”
He was a wonderful handler of men. Fights and quarrels were unknown at his place. If a person was inclined to become boisterous, a tap on the shoulder by Mr. Jacobsen was all that was necessary. There was no comeback. The patron well knew that the proprietor’s word and warning was supreme. Failure to respect such warning meant a headlong plunge thru the door out into the street. Patrons not only admired Mr. Jacobsen’s geniality and good fellowship, but also respected his wonderful physique.
No American citizen had greater respect and reverence for the American flag than the elder Jacobsen. His tavern was equipped with the largest flagstaff in the city – out of proportion as they say, to the size of the building. But this made no difference to Mr. Jacobsen. He would allow nothing to obscure the conspicuousness of this flag. There was a picnic grounds across the street from the tavern and here many lodges and fraternal societies held their picnics. It was a common occurrence on these occasions to string their banners across the street between the tavern and the grounds. It was an inherent rule with Mr. Jacobsen that the stars and stripes had to be strung across the street at the same time and in close proximity to the lodge banners. He insisted that the American flag be displayed on all occasions.
The tavern was a favorite meeting place, not only for lodges, but for political parties as well. Many of the city’s biggest rallies and most spirited political debates, particularly during the presidential campaign, were held at the tavern.
It was here that the Northwest Davenport Liedertafel, Davenport’s oldest singing society, was organized. Mr. Jacobsen himself was a leading spirit in this organization and his voice was always to be heard in their songs. The Northwest Davenport Turner society (gymnastics/athletics organization) was also organized here and the Turners never had a warmer or more enthusiastic supporter than Mr. Jacobsen. There was an outdoor beer garden and dance hall and theater in the rear of the tavern and here many amateur plays were produced. One of the most famous of these was “Viehhaendler from Ober Ostreich” in which Mr. Jacobsen portrayed the leading role, that of a cattle dealer. His pompous form and majestic voice particularly fitted him for this important role.
In 1882 the buildings included the two-story 30×30 tavern/inn, a 40×70 dancing hall, 30×60 Turner Hall, a 15×80 stable, 15×60 barn, and the 40×40 Jacobsen home. All of these were destroyed on the 4th of July when a spark from the park across the street landed on the roof of the dancing hall. Not to be deterred, Peter opened up for business the next day in the bowling alley nearby! The buildings were soon rebuilt and Peter continued running the business until retiring in 1886.
A 1905 newspaper article titled “The Pioneer Firemen were Brave Men” included this description: “The Eagle Hook and Ladder Company of Northwest Davenport … had an old style ladder wagon resembling a band wagon with a lot of old rubber buckets to douse out fires with. That portion of the city was once sparsely settled and without water mains, so the company was often handicapped in quenching the flames, despite the fact that it had a Little Giant hand engine along with its truck. The members were of the sturdy old Schleswig-Holsteiners who made Scott county so prosperous. Peter Nicolaus Jacobsen was its heavy-set foreman, and he and his brave band of fire fighters extinguished one fire in Hamburg, on account of the absence of the necessary liquid (water) with milk and beer, the latter being more abundant by a long way. “ Unfortunately, as noted in the article about the 1882 fire that destroyed the Jacobsen home, tavern, and related buildings, a series of problems prevented the Eagle fire company from saving these buildings.
The businesses centered at Five Points (in the 1880’s) included Peter Jacobsen’s tavern on the southeast corner, the Sternberg cigar mould manufacturing concern on the northwest corner, and the cigar factory started by Peter Jacobsen Sr and continued and expanded by his son, Peter Jr. On the southwest corner extending south for several blocks, was the county fair grounds. Apparently the tavern later became a feed store that was operated by Peter’s son Charles Jacobsen and then others. (This is a new tidbit of information – obtained from a 1924 newspaper article that provided the other information in this paragraph. I’ll try to work out when this would have been. The same article mentioned a huge fire in 1887 that destroyed almost every business on the 1600 block of West Locust street, including the tavern. I had never heard of this second fire and I couldn’t find a newspaper article in 1887 about a large fire. I’ll try to make sure they weren’t actually referring to the 1882 fire, but I don’t think so because the cause of this fire was very different.)
Almost from the time of his arrival here, Mr. Jacobsen became mentor for his compatriots. He grasped quickly the ideals of this new land to which he had come. He was in full sympathy with the native born Germans who sought to adjust themselves to America and he became typical of the new German-American spirit, serving both interests well, lending steadying hand to the newcomer and continuously and faithfully striving to establish them in their new environment.
I just recently discovered a newspaper article written in 1924 that mentioned that sometime either about 1864 or 1871 Peter returned to the old country and brought back with him two orphan boys from Germany. He became a friend and benefactor to them. Both grew to manhood and became influential citizens in their respective communities. One became a big ranchman in Montana and the other served in the legislature in Nebraska. I haven’t yet tried to see if I can verify this.
Five more children were born between 1863 and 1873; the first was a son they named Peter, but he died as a young child. The others were a second daughter, Anna, and three more sons – Peter, Claus, and Henry.
Anna died of lung fever in January 1885, after a four week illness. Their youngest child, Henry, was eleven years old. From her obituary: “Mrs. Jacobsen was given to kindly acts among the poor in that portion of the city, and her good deeds in the neighborhood were frequent.”
In early 1886 Peter traveled back to Germany for an extended visit with friends and family, thinking he may decide to stay. His passport application includes his physical description at the age of 52: He was 5’6″ with grey eyes, fair hair, and a ruddy complexion.
The story of Peter’s trip was related in a 1918 newspaper article about the death of Peter’s grandson, Carl:
“He went back to the little village where he was born and educated. The place looked just as he had left it. Many of the old friends of his youth were still living there. They remembered and greeted him warmly. For two weeks he went from one home to another, his mind and time fully occupied.
Then he began to get lonesome, dissatisfied. He had seen all his old friends, was enjoying his visit, but something was missing. It wasn’t something that had gone out of his life, but something that had come in since his boyhood and which would never go out, he told his friends later.
After a few weeks he told his old friends, “I’m going home.” They were surprised. “Why, you are at home now. This is your home,” they replied. “No,” he said, “this is not my home. My home is over there in America. I never realized it fully before, but I know it now. It is there where my children were born and raised, where they will live and die, where my dear wife sleeps the last sleep, and it is there where I wish to spend my remaining days and be laid to rest.” He came home and his heart swelled with pride as he told the story to a friend. “This is MY country,” he said. “
Peter returned to Davenport in the summer of 1886. He traveled first class on the steamship Rugla which departed Hamburg on June 27th. I believe this is when Peter brought back a beautifully crafted cabinet that his granddaughter, Ardena, showed me when I visited her in 2003. Ardena believed that Peter had made it, but I think it is more likely that someone in Anna’s family, who were all skilled cabinetmakers, gave it to him. The cabinet was passed down to Peter’s son, Charles, who used it to keep his business records, and then to Charles’ youngest daughter Ardena.
On December 15th of that year Peter and Pauline (Huenger) Poehlmann were married by Ernest Claussen, the mayor of the city of Davenport. Peter was 53 and Pauline was 42. She had been widowed almost a year before when her first husband, William Poehlmann, committed suicide when he became disheartened at not being able to hold a job due to his excessive drinking. At the inquest Pauline testified that though her husband was a hard drinker, he always treated her kindly and was a good husband and father. The William and Pauline had one daughter, Anna, and in January 1889 she married Peter’s son, Peter Jr.
More on Peter’s second wife Pauline (Huenger) Poehlmann
Mr. Jacobsen was a leader in Northwest Davenport activities. His undisputed place in that growing community of German-Americans was indicated by his prominence in the folk-organizations. He was honored by presidency and vice-presidency in the German Pioneer society, which held half-century residence as first requisite for membership. He was treasurer of the Northwest Davenport Liedertafel and held influential place in the Northwest Davenport Turners, the Davenport Turngemeinde, the German-American Alliance and the Northwest Davenport Relief society (treasurer for 34 years) – all important organizations of his day. He founded and was president for four years of the German Theatre company. Nor was his work confined within strictly national lines, for at the time of his death in 1913 he had been 40 years chairman of the central school committee of Davenport township and noted in a score of other municipal enterprises and civic activities which brought together the people of the city as forward-going Americans unclassified by ancestral traits.
P. N. Jacobsen never stood for public office himself, however, he always had a great interest in politics, singing, the theater, and schools. He had a boundless love for all things German and was ready at all times to support the lifting of the common people. He was vigorous, original, direct, and overall he was a man who thought, spoke, and acted freely and independently.
Peter was in the best of health until May 28 1913, when he suffered a paralytic stroke. He was confined to his bed for several weeks and strong hopes of his recovery had been held out until early July when he took a turn for the worse, sinking rapidly until his death on July 25th.
From the Davenport Democrat July 28, 1913: “One of the largest funerals that has ever been held in Davenport took place yesterday afternoon, when services for the late Peter N. Jacobsen Sr. were held from the home 1823 Division street.
Gustav Donald conducted the services at the home and at the crematorium, where the body of the aged German resident was incinerated. The Ladies Circle of the Northwest Davenport Liedertafel rendered several hymns.
Among the societies represented at the obsequies were the Germania Sick Relief, the Northwest Davenport Turners, Northwest Davenport Liedertafel and Northwest Davenport Sick Relief society. Several members of the German American Pioneer association were also in attendance.
The Germania band marched at the head of the funeral procession, and was followed by the members of the society acting as escort to the hearse. The pallbearers were each a representative of a different lodge or organization to which the deceased belonged.”
Translation of “Die Deutschen von Iowa und deren Errungenschaften” [Germans of Iowa and their Achievements] by Jospeh Eiboeck, 1900
1905 Newspaper story “The Pioneer Firemen Were Brave Men”
1910 Biographical Sketch in “History of Davenport and Scott County, Iowa”
1911 Newspaper story “Father of NW Davenport Celebrating 78th Birthday”
Dec 1911 Newspaper story about Peter & Pauline’s 25th Anniversary
Mar 1912 Newspaper story on his 79th Birthday
July 1913 Newspaper story “Prominent German Citizen Succumbs”
July 1913 Newspaper story “Jacobsen Funeral”
Unpublished translation of “Geschichte der Stadt Davenport und der County Scott” [History of the city of Davenport and Scott County] by August Paul Richter 1917
Nov 1918 Newspaper story “Grandson of Prominent Pioneer Davenporter Gives Life for U.S.”
June 1923 Newspaper story “One of Davenport’s Most Famous Landmarks Now Being Razed…Farewell to Jacobsen’s Tavern at the Five Points”
July 1924 Newspaper story “Peter N. Jacobsen One of Early German Pioneers Who Helped Build Up the Community Here”
July 1924 Newspaper Story “Northwest Davenport Five Points – When the Fair Grounds Were Located at Five Points and Forgotten Firms Flourished”