Biography of Theodore Poehler

Theodore Poehler. Of the able and large-hearted Germans who emigrated from the fatherland when Kansas was one of the frontier territories of the United States, none hold a more secure place in the admiration and affection of living pioneers and their descendants than Theodore Poehler, whose death occurred at Lawrence, December 31, 1901, a few days after he had entered his seventieth year. He stood for industry, thrift, a broad business outlook, warm affections, a Christian charity, practical usefulness, wide culture and thoroughness in education, as well as every other activity of life. Besides his many good works, a monument to his name still endures in that prosperous and widely extended establishment known as the Theodore Poehler Mercantile Company.

The founder of that great mercantile house was born in the Village of Remmighausen, principality of Lippe Detmold, Germany, on the 26th of December, 1832. He was one of the four children who reached maturity born to the marriage of Henry Poehler, a teacher in the old country, and Augusta Schoenlau. The mother was a representative of an old historic family, members of which still own an estate granted to an ancestor by a prince of feudal times in payment for military service bravely rendered. The Poehlers came from a family of educators, although the grandfather of Theodore was a soldier under Napoleon and one of the few survivors of the disastrous retreat from Moscow.

In view of the family tendency, it was natural that Theodore Poehler should be given unusual educational advantages. His father had designed him for the ministry, but as this plan did not meet with the views of the boy himself as to what he considered best for his future, his education was directed into other channels. As he had relatives in America and had an early ambition to emigrate to the United States, he completed a course at a semi-agricultural school as a preliminary for western life in the new country. In 1851, when he was about nineteen years of age, the youth boarded a sailing vessel bound for New Orleans and made that port after a voyage of eleven weeks. Thence he took a Mississippi River steamboat to Burlington, Iowa, escaping a cholera epidemic en route, and disembarked at the place named. He then worked on a farm for a short time. Later he commenced to furnish supplies for the river steamboats, and gradually drifted into the wholesale and retail grocery business. In 1854 he married Sophie Knoener, and six of their seven children were born at Burlington. There, also, his business so prospered that at the time of the Civil war he had amassed what was then a competency.

Immediately following the close of the Civil war, in 1866, Mr. Poehler started on a sight-seeing and a prospecting expedition. Kansas City he found little more than a mud hole, while Lawrence presented a bright, clean and bustling appearance, with exceptional educational advantages. As the father of a growing family, thoroughly convinced of the value of a good education, the last named feature was what decided him in favor of Lawrence. He at once settled there, and embarked in the wholesale and retail grocery business on Mass Street, and as he thus established himself with considerable capital his venture at once prospered. Associated with him was his brother, August Poehler; and this was the beginning of the Poehler interests in the State of Kansas. The latter was a man who stood deservedly high by reason of his sterling characteristics, but later in life he returned to Germany, where he died.

Theodore Poehler passed through the grasshopper period, and many a stricken farmer came to him for relief, and if his was a worthy case, he never went away empty handed or heavy hearted, for his benefactor was not only generous but knew how to bestow his relief in a way to bring comfort of spirit as well as easement of material stress. Mr. Poehler became vice president of the old State Bank, which was probably the only financial institution in Lawrence that passed through the various panics, paying dollar for dollar on all just claims. The misery and stagnation throughout the country, caused by the drought and grasshopper plague, crippled him financially, but not to such an extent as to compel him to repudiate any just obligation. For a time he retired from business, and in 1870 the republicans elected him treasurer of Douglas County. But neither politics nor public affairs were to his taste, and at the conclusion of one term in the treasurer’s office he embarked in the grain and retail grocery business. Later he entered the field as a wholesale grocer. He was also induced to serve as alderman and mayor of Lawrence, and as a member of the school board. At times he was even suggested as a candidate for Congress or for the gubernatorial chair, but discouraged all such preferment in favor of business. In the able management of such affairs, and in the wide but well-nigh concealed dispensation of his numerous charities, he found his greatest pride and satisfaction.

Theodore Poehler was reared as a member of the German Evangelical Church, but for many years prior to his death was identified with the Congregational Church. His first wife died in 1870, and his second companion was Sophie Tappe, whose people came from his old home locality in Germany. Three children who reached maturity were born to this second marriage. Of his children three married daughters by each of his marriages are yet living, but no sons servive to bear his name.

As his children grew to maturity and married he gave each a substantial sum, believing that it would be more appreciated at that time than after his death. In 1889 he retired from active business, which was then incorporated as the Theodore Poehler Mercantile Company.

The offspring of Mr. Poehler’s first marriage are: Matilda, widow of William H. Pendleton; Emma, now Mrs. Henry Tramper, of Seattle, Washington; Clara, Mrs. Frederick H. Smithmeyer. The daughters by the second marriage are: Bertha, Mrs. Louis Bloul, of Burlington, Iowa; Laura, Mrs. James Means, of San Mateo, California; and Alma, Mrs. Charles Brook, of Burlington, Iowa.

Theodore Poehler possessed strong intellectual gifts outside of those which he applied with such effectiveness to the management and promotion of his business affairs. Into the few public offices which he held he carried with the happiest results those qualities of method, far-sightedness and honesty, which gave him such high standing in the world of trade and finance. He also had a decided talent for public speaking, and was often called upon to deliver addresses at Fourth of July celebrations and other public gatherings. In his capacity as friend and neighbor, he was of an exceptionally sympathetic nature. All his acquaintances, particularly the Germans, came to him as a repository for all their troubles, domestic and financial, as they had the firm faith that if he could not assist them he would, upon no account, betray their confidences. In taking leave of this strong and lovable man, it should be evident to every reader that his like is rare in the world, and that his example is one which cannot be too often followed by those to whom much is given.

As noted, the Theodore Poehler Mercantile Company was organized in 1889, the majority of the stock being owned by Mr. Poehler and his descendants. In 1900 a branch house was established at Emporia, and in 1917 one at Topeka. In the parent concern and the two branches more than 200 are given employment. The present officers are: F. H. Smithmeyer, president; O. B. Gufler, vice president and manager of the Topeka house; George Kirchhoff, secretary and treasurer; A. H. Gufler, manager of the Emporia branch; directors, all of the foregoing and F. P. Smithmeyer, Jr., and George J. Kirchhoff, Jr.


Connelley, William E. A Standard History of Kansas and Kansans. Chicago : Lewis, 1918. 5v. Biographies can be accessed from this page: Kansas and Kansans Biographies.

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