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Home > Serendipity > Conrad Poppenhusen

There are streets named after him in the city of Hamburg in Germany, and also in the village of College Point in Queens, New York City. That this small American town situated on a peninsula exists at all is due in large part to him, whilst the educational institute he founded there 135 years ago has been declared both a New York City and a National Landmark. In Hamburg, the enterprise that he, along with Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Maurien, established in 1871 continues to operate. As it has done since its foundation, the New York-Hamburg/Waaren Compagnie manufactures, among other things, combs. His identity is all but unknown today and his achievements largely unheralded. His name was Conrad Poppenhusen.

Born in Hamburg on April 1, 1818, Conrad was introduced to very basic business principles by his father Heinrich, but that education was interrupted when his father died in 1829. A close family friend and entrepreneur, Heinrich Christian Meyer, took Conrad under his wing and broadened his business knowledge to such an extent that in 1838 the 20 year-old Poppenhusen signed a five year employment contract with Meyer that took him abroad, especially to Great Britain where he was able to expand his use of the English language, a skill that would ease his entry into the whirl of American business.

He became secretly engaged to Bertha Marie Henrietta Karker in August 1839 and announced his intention to marry 16 months later. The couple were wed in May 1841 and one year later Conrad, now an officer in the fire brigade, helped fight the great fire of Hamburg that blazed for 100 hours and destroyed much of the city. During the four-day conflagration he neither changed clothes nor did he sleep very much, according to a very brief autobiography he penned late in his life.

Thirteen months later, in June 1843, Conrad sailed alone for New York City to join Meyer’s son Adolph where together they went into the business of manufacturing combs and corset stays from a diminishing supply of whalebone. Their factory was near the Brooklyn waterfront across the East River from lower Manhattan.

A year later Bertha and her young son Adolph were reunited with husband and father and over the next two years two more sons were born, Heinrich Conrad, named for his deceased grandfather, in 1846 and Herman Christian, named for his father’s mentor, in 1847. A sister named Marie was born in 1849, one year after H.C. Meyer died in Hamburg. The relationship between Adolph and Conrad then deteriorated to the point that by 1852 Poppenhusen had a new business partner, a man of some mystery, Frederick Koenig, a Hamburg banker whose job it was to raise fresh capital for the ongoing business expansion.

At some point in this four-year span Conrad got together with Charles Goodyear and recognized the twin facts that the world’s supply of whalebone was in jeopardy, and that reliable hard rubber was now available for manufacturing purposes. It is said that he had loaned Goodyear considerable sums of money to finance numerous necessary experiments and that, as a result, he was granted limited sole rights to the vulcanization process. Indeed that did occur in 1852 when, as security for his loans, Poppenhusen not only obtained the rights to manufacture combs, but also, for a considerable period of time, was the sole owner of the patents acquired by right of invention by Charles Goodyear.

Two years later, in a move much celebrated in the local press, Poppenhusen built a large factory in College Point on the shores of Flushing Bay near the East River for the purpose of expanding his business of manufacturing products made from hard rubber. He was exceedingly successful.

In 1858 Bertha died, but whilst Conrad grieved both the town and business were expanding rapidly. In 1859 he married a family friend named Caroline Hütterott, and by 1860 the population of the village had grown from under 100 in 1852 to in excess of 2,000, with the great majority of those in his employ. He took it as his charge and mission in life to create a worker’s paradise, and in so doing paved roads, built houses, deepened and widened the channel of the existing waterway, served as Justice of the Peace, and donated a great deal of money to a variety of religious and secular causes. When the American Civil War came in 1861 he paid extra bonuses to his workers who had gone off to fight and guaranteed their employment on their return,. He took care of their widows, educated their children and eventually got involved in railroading. This was to be his undoing.

Whilst courting Caroline he made mention to her of a project dear to him that he was intent on developing. It became the Poppenhusen Institute, dedicated in 1868 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his birth, with the objective being to provide free education to his workers and their children as well as anyone else in the surrounding villages who had an interest in learning. Discrimination by race, creed or, indeed, of any description, was disallowed. Not only did Conrad donate the land on which the Institute would be built, he also made an initial endowment of $100,000.

The building, with its mansard roof and dormer windows characteristic of the French Second Empire style of architecture, officially opened in May 1870 at a cost of $50,000 - equivalent to today’s $630,000. His initial endowment of $100,000 was then followed by another of the same amount to pay teachers’ salaries along with the anticipated long-term cost of operation and upkeep necessary to continue for centuries to come its celebrated mission of free education. Hardly one century had passed when, in the early 1970’s, the building stood in great disrepair and was slated for demolition. It was saved only through the concerted efforts of its current Director, Ms. Susan Brustmann, and other interested parties. This great landmark is now a cultural and education centre, five stories tall, and continues its original charter

So why isn’t this giant of a man more well known, and his significant record of philanthropy and achievement more widely recognized?

Unlike his contemporary and fellow German-New Yorker, William Steinway (who also founded a company town in Queens called Astoria), Poppenhusen manufactured combs while Steinway specialized in pianos. Combs are less romantic and offer little in the way of cachet. Additionally, when Conrad got involved in operating railroads on Long Island, he was decidedly out of his depth. It is a long and very involved story, but history tells us that he spent the early part of the 1870’s in Europe leaving the running of the railroads to his sons. As a result he was out of touch with what was taking place at home and his sons were being advised by numerous of Conrad’s friends, only in touch with their father via the telegraph. The result was that by November 1877 Conrad was back in New York having to apply for bankruptcy. The vast fortune he had acquired over the preceding quarter century was, to all intents and purposes, gone.

Conrad Poppenhusen, the Benefactor of College Point, town founder and philanthropist extraordinaire, died there on December 23, 1883. His remains were taken to nearby Flushing Cemetery, put into a vault and stored until the following March 7th when they were sent via ship to Germany for burial. Ohlsdorf Cemetery, the largest cemetery park in Hamburg and the world, is their resting place today. Caroline, who did not remarry, died in 1903 and is buried alongside her husband.

In the fall of the year following his death a memorial was erected in a triangular park located near to his mansion. The monument is of granite, 12 feet high, surmounted by a bronze bust of the deceased. The pedestal bears the following inscription.

Poppenhusen

To the Memory of the Benefactor of College Point,

November 1, 1884

The residents erected the monument at a cost of $2,000 and it remains there today for all to see.

This page was written by James E. Haas for Plastiquarian.com

 

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