Gustave Unkrich, Fairfield Iowa grocer

February 13, 2011

Gustave Adolph Unkrich, prominent Fairfield Iowa grocer.

Gustave Adolph Unkrich (1845-1926), prominent Fairfield grocer. Captioned “G. A. Unkrich” in Huntzinger album. No photographer, no date.

Born in Germany on April 21, 1845 to John H. and Fredericka L. (Gerson) Unkrich, Gus immigrated with his parents to the U.S. in 1859. His father was a government officer in Europe who came to America for his health, but died in Round Prairie Township the following year. Gus was living in Albia, Iowa in 1864 when he enlisted in the Civil War and served for 100 days in Co. G of the 46th Iowa Infantry. After the war he moved to Fairfield and opened a grocery store on the west side of the Park. His stock of “Family Groceries” included coffee, tea, sugar, molasses, candies, cheese, crackers, spices, soaps, tobacco, cigars, pipes, oysters, sardines and other fish, and fruit both canned and dried.

Gus moved his assortment of groceries, wooden and earthen ware, tobacco and fruit into J. W. Gilchrist’s new store at 56 S. Main in 1867; two years later he bought the property on the south side of the Square at 54 W. Burlington, where he remained for some 20 years.

Around 1870 Gus married Sarah Arabella (“Bella”) Huntzinger, a daughter of Sarah and Franklin B. Huntzinger, and Gus sold his miller father-in-law’s flour at his store. Over the next 15 years Gus and Bella had four children: Maggie Maude, Charles Rudy, Clarence Adolph, and Charlotte Louisa. Maggie Maude married Hurse E. Wisecarver and Charles Rudy married Sarah E. McKay; the younger two children died in childhood.

The 1870s were evidently creative years for Gus, who played Festus in the cantata “Belshazzar” when it premiered in 1875 at Semon’s beautiful new Opera House, built that year at 50-52 W. Burlington, right next door to Gus’s grocery. The inventive grocer also patented an oil-cabinet in 1876 and an improved ventilator in 1877.

In 1876 Bella’s next-younger sister Elizabeth Katherine married Frank A. Jones, who then went into business with Gus until 1880. Jones succeeded Robert Rudy Huntzinger, Sarah and Elizabeth’s younger brother, who had partnered with Gus until June 1876. His health ever precarious. R. R. Huntzinger died in January 1884 at the age of 29.

Here is a photo of Gus Unrich’s grocery store on the south side of the Square in 1876, together with an advertisement of his from 1888.

Gus was a prominent member of Jefferson Lodge No. 4, I.O.O.F., and was on the Odd Fellows’ building committee which in 1882 planned to build a three-story brick block and lodge at 51 E. Broadway. Finally deciding that the block would be too expensive, they purchased Semon’s Opera House at 50-52 W. Burlington the following year and rebuilt it for their lodge upstairs, next door east of Gus’s grocery.

Gus, his wife Belle, and their children Maud, Rudy and Clarence were living at the west end of “2nd South St,” now Washington St., in the 1885 Iowa State Census. In 1886, Gus circulated a subscription paper to raise money for a new bandstand in the Park. Octagonal in shape and measuring 16 x 20 feet, the new bandstand was dedicated that August with a memorable concert by the C. B. & Q. Band.

On November 20, 1888 the Fairfield Ledger praised Gus thus: “To successfully conduct a first-class grocery establishment requires not only ability and energy, and a knowledge of the varying influences that affect the trade, but also the faculty of anticipating the ever changing tastes in food products in the community… Mr. Unkrich’s stock is … one of the most complete and extensive in the city, and his business methods are such as to entice trade from less liberal dealers. Personally Mr. Unkrich is an affable and pleasant gentleman, with whom it is a pleasure to do business…[He enjoys] wide popularity and yearly increasing prosperity[, is] prominent alike in business and social circles, and highly esteemed by all classes of citizens.”

Sometime between 1900 and 1910 Gus and his wife moved to Des Moines, where Gus again sold groceries, but by 1920 they had returned to Fairfield, where they resided at 204 S. Main St. Gus died on August 17, 1926; Bella died eight months later. The couple are buried together in the Old Cemetery in Fairfield.

Find A Grave Memorial to Gustave A. Unkrich…

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