(Nov. 20, 1824-Dec. 13, 1906). German immigrant Clemens Vonnegut Sr. was the patriarch of the Indianapolis Vonneguts. He was a successful merchant, civic leader, and intellectual.

Born in Münster, Westphalia, Germany, Vonnegut came from an urban, middle-class family. His father was a tax collector for the government of Westphalia. A product of the gymnasia of Warendorf and Münster, Vonnegut was well educated, qualified to attend university, and fluent in English and French. Instead of pursuing higher education, he became involved in the manufacture and sale of silk ribbon.

In 1851, he sailed for America to conduct business for his employer, decided to remain in the United States, and shortly thereafter relocated to Indianapolis on January 11, 1852. Vonnegut immediately formed a general merchandise retail partnership with fellow immigrant and schoolmate Charles “Carl” Vollmer. However, by 1857, Vonnegut became the sole proprietor of the business and carried only hardware, farming equipment, and carpenter’s tools at his East Washington Street store. Vonnegut Hardware Company remained a multigenerational, family-owned Indianapolis institution until 1965. Its motto was “You can get it at Vonnegut’s.”

An illustration of a multi-story commercial building.
Vonnegut Hardware Company, ca. 1910 Credit: Indiana Historical Society View Source

Vonnegut was dedicated to his family and civic responsibilities. He married Katerina Blank, a native of Baden, in Indianapolis. They had four sons—Clemens Jr., Bernard, Franklin, and George. All but Bernard followed in the hardware business. He formed the architectural firm of Vonnegut And Bohn.

The civic activities of Clemens Vonnegut Sr. included 27 years on the Indianapolis Board of School Commissioners and cofounding and leadership of the German-English Independent School, the Indianapolis Turngemeinde (see turners/turnvereins), the Freidenker Verein/Free-Thinker Society (see Freethought), and the Gewerbeschule. He was also an active member of the Maennerchor.

He was an education reformer responsible for the general improvement of instruction and the introduction of physical education and manual training into the Indianapolis Public Schools curriculum. Vonnegut was the author in German and English of A Proposed Guide For Instruction In Morals From The Standpoint Of A Freethinker (Indianapolis, 1900).

His obituary in the German-language Indiana Tribüne described him as a fighter for German views and aspirations as well as for freedom, justice, and morality. He was also the great-grandfather of renowned author Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Revised July 2021

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