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The Pfaenders

Revolutionaries, artists, pioneers — and a major pop star

October 12, 2008
By KREMENA SPENGLER — Journal Staff Writer

NEW ULM - What do Richard Runck of New Ulm and Posh Spice have in common?

It's not a trick question - they share a clearly traceable family connection.

Both are related to one of New Ulm's founding fathers, Wilhelm Pfaender.

Article Photos

Photos courtesy of the Brown County Historical Society of New Ulm Minnesota
Brothers Carl (left) and Wilhelm (right) Pfaender

So are Runck's brother Willis and his kids; New Ulmer Ruthie Stoll; Colorado audiologist Marion Pfaender Downs; and Californian Armin Pfaender, to name but a few.

Like "a ripple in a water pond," puts in Runck.

But while the Americans listed are direct descendants of Wilhelm Pfaender, British singer Victoria Beckham (nee Adams, a.k.a. Posh Spice) is the great-great-great-granddaughter of Wilhelm's brother Carl, a colorful personage in his own right. The connection was reported earlier this year in research by German historian Hans Mueller of Heilbronn, the Pfaenders' ancestral seat.

The Pfaender family is fascinating in more ways than one.

Besides a major pop star, it includes revolutionaries, pioneers, military heroes, artists and politicians...

Runck himself appears to be sensitive about the revolutionary label.

His famous great-grandfather Wilhelm, he says, was no militant radical. Rather, he was a "silent runner," "a victim of his own success" - and also of "controversies created in part by historians."

Wilhelm Pfaender (1826-1905), the son of a Heilbronn cooper (barrel maker), was motivated by ideals similar to those espoused by the U.S. Constitution: of liberty, social justice and compassion for the common man.

Like other Turners, he put great stock in education and had a very strong anti-slavery bent.


The Turner Society, or Turnverein, was founded in Germany in the early 19th century, with the stated objective of furthering physical education.

But the Turnverein ideals definitely encompassed more than physical health - the Turners espoused freedom of speech, religion and thought. Quite a few developed socialistic leanings (which, in the case of New Ulm's founders, would disappear over time).

Feudal oppression in Germany led to the growth of the Turner movement, culminating in a revolution in 1848; when the revolution was crushed, many Turners - the so called forty-eighters - fled to the United States. They established gymnasiums, held discussion meetings and debates, encouraged writers and artists and produced plays and operas. They also believed in women's suffrage.

In the run-up to the Civil War, anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States was growing.

Many German immigrants became disillusioned because of harassment from English speakers. Two men, Pfaender of the Cincinnati Turnverein, and Friederich Beinhorn of the Chicago Land Society, independently conceived the idea of founding their own community in the west.

Pfaender wrote of his dream - to start a settlement "which, aside from the material welfare, would also offer... the opportunity to enjoy unstintedly the rights guaranteed us by the Constitution of the United States, and to become happy and blessed after our own fashion."

The Cincinnati group ended up infusing cash into the settlement just being started by the Chicago group; this town, the birthchild of a dream, was New Ulm.


The settlers made it work, through collaboration and grit, observes Runck. The community survived three disasters in a row (the Dakota Conflict, a grasshopper raid and a tornado), just as it was making its baby steps.


Wilhelm Pfaender served as justice of the peace, performing the first marriage between settlers in Brown County. In 1856 he co-founded the New Ulm Turnverein. In 1860, he traveled 100 miles on horseback to cast one of three Minnesota electors' ballots for Abraham Lincoln. He was elected a register of deeds of Brown County and also to the Minnesota House of Representatives. In 1870 he was elected to the Minnesota State Senate.

He served as mayor of New Ulm from 1873 till 1876, and then was elected Minnesota State Treasurer for two terms. Later, he served on the New Ulm City Council.

In 1861, he was commissioned First Lieutenant of the First Minnesota Battery. The soldiers under his command are credited with checking the surprise attack at the Hornets Nest in the Battle of Shiloh, and may have saved the day for the Union.

He returned to Minnesota because of the Dakota Conflict in 1862 and was placed in command of Ft. Ridgley; later he was commissioned Lieutenant Colonel of the Second Cavalry Regiment.


With accomplishments of their own, Wilhelm's descendants are too interesting in their own right to be done justice here.

Ten of his 15 children lived into adulthood - six daughters and four sons. The sons, in particular, were involved in banking, insurance, farming, the law and other pursuits; all of them were distinguished public servants and volunteers for civic groups. Many of Pfaender's children (remember Posh Spice?) had interests in music, performing and the arts.

To most of us, the Turnverein might be a historical footnote; to Pfaender's descendants, it's the family legacy - their life.

A grandson of Wilhelm's, Tom Pfaender, was a beloved gymnastics instructor still remembered by many; Runck himself is a former longtime manager of Turner Hall.


Wilhelm's brother, Carl Heinrich Pfaender (1819-1876), has been the subject of recent research by Hans Mueller, a historian from Heilbronn. A communist and artist, he emigrated to London in 1844. Researching the political personalities of the Pfaender family, Mueller not only confirmed that, in London, Carl Pfaender became a close friend of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and belonged to the inner circle of the Communist League; but also, more or less by chance, he found out that Carl Pfaender is the great-great-great-grandfather of Victoria Adams Beckham (Posh Spice).


Runck's personal history appears to have given him mixed feelings about discussing his heritage.

When he was growing up during World War II, he says, speaking German in the family was forbidden; still lingering was the memory of the anti-German sentiment during World War I.

"We were shielded [from the family story]," says Runck. "My uncles - they wouldn't go near this stuff."

The memories - including the still sensitive episode of New Ulm Mayor L.A. Fritsche and City Attorney Albert Pfaender, both great uncles of Runck's, being removed from office for their perceived anti-war stance - still resonates on a very personal level for Runck.

"New Ulm history," he muses, "is like an archeological dig - there are too many layers to it." All too often, history ends up being "his story."

Runck is also ambiguous about plans in the works to honor Wilhelm Pfaender with a park and street in a new city development formerly part of Milford Township, near the original Pfaender farm. It's an honor many consider long overdue.

"I guess I am O.K. with it, as long as Beinhorn (the New Ulm co-founder) gets recognized, too," he said.

His ancestors, Runck said, never did what they did for the glory; they simply were who they were.

As to the Posh Spice connection, "what's she to me," the septuagenerian asks. "In every family that goes back that far, you could find somebody interesting, if you wanted to... If you dug deep enough."

Moreover, Beckham "has 16 great-great-great-grandfathers to choose from - the DNA gets spread around - she can pick on any one she likes."

Runck had never heard of the Spice Girls until becoming aware of Mueller's research.

He looked up Victoria Beckham on the Internet at the public library and saw a video of her performing.

He says he couldn't figure out how to shut the sound off - so the teenager next to him peeked over, grinned, and gave him a "thumbs-up."


Darla Gebhard of the Brown County Historical Society Museum should be credited with the idea, as well as factual and contact information, for this story.



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