German Couple Taught The Rightness of Things
[Editor’s Note: This article was originally published at Christmas 1989 in The Glade Times and Mountain Mirror. It is reprinted here with permission.]
When Annelise and Hans Simmons arrived in Petersburg (VA) in 1932, little did they know the effect they would have on the community they had decided to call home for the rest of their lives.
Their three children were born and raised in Dinwiddie County. And while they were never completely accepted for just who they were, they taught lessons which – even today – are not accepted by many Americans.
When they left New York their plan was to open a craft shop in Florida. It wasn't to be. As for me, I can only thank God that this German immigrant and his wife were part of my life.
After buying a 5-acre tract of land five miles south of Petersburg along U.S. 1, Hans attempted to get credit for the materials he would need to build his craft shop and home. He would make the crafts and Annelise would paint them. Their artistic talent seemed to have no limit.
But Virginians seemed wary of this German. They were skeptical of him and what he planned to do. The banks had little faith in his abilities. With a background as a mechanical engineer, Hans seemed ill-prepared to run his own business.
But these potential creditors did not realize the determination that filled him. They did not accept him at face value. He had no job and the bankers could see little chance to be repaid.
Everyone was unwilling to take a chance on this man who had fled persecution in his homeland. Everyone, that is, except Arthur Richardson, who owned several saw mills in the county.
For some unknown reason, Mr. Richardson trusted Hans. He knew in his heart that Hans would repay his debts.
And so he gave Hans the materials he needed to build Ye Blue Tartane.
Hans created the design and labored himself. He constructed a building which would house the family and the craft shop under one roof. And in Dinwiddie County there wasn't another building like it.
His German heritage was obvious at every turn. Bavaria may not have had such a structure. He took stone from the land he owned and cut it to fit his needs. He pieced the building together over several months.
Finally it was time to begin the craft business. The knickknacks were abundant. The huge wooden rocking horses were destined to become collector's items for the New Yorkers traveling to and from Miami.
But I remember the triptychs most especially. They were three-paneled boxes Hans made. And Annelise painted the Madonna and Child in the center panel, sided by a shepherd and a wise man. (I have one in my living room.)
The triptychs Hans made were unique. Whereas most of such items have metal hinges, Hans had no metal at all. He made wooden hinges.
It seemed remarkable to me that this German Jew could feel so deeply and create such a work of art for the Christians around him.
Hans had been raised as a Jew. However, his grandfather had been the last of his family to carry his faith into adulthood. Hans was not a practicing Jew. Rather, for him, it was a heritage.
And I suppose that is why, as Hitler gathered power in Germany in the 1920s, his Brown Shirts attempted to recruit Hans into their ranks.
Hitler tried to get all the highly-trained minds of his countrymen into his fold. And Hans had demonstrated his enormous abilities while working for several companies which built power plants and bridges. He was an independent thinker, and, although I never was able to ask him myself, he must have realized the danger posed by Hitler.
So, as the Depression moved through the darkest days of the 1930s, Hans and Annelise decided to expand their business to include a motel. But not your ordinary travel stop.
Hans wanted rustic cabins. He had already built his own power plant and to connect the units with the main building, he dug trenches and poured concrete boxes to carry electrical power and the plumbing to each of them. It was an unheard of innovation in those days. It allowed for easy repairs and many copied his idea in the years that followed.
But I guess the thing I remember most about the motel was the restaurant. Hans made the large room where the crafts had been displayed into an adequate dining room. The tables were handmade and featured a lazy susan in the middle.
And you couldn't get a glass of water. When Hans had put in the well, the water came out so full of iron that it gave it a terrible taste. It wasn't contaminated at all. It just tasted awful.
Hans couldn't abandon his dream though. He had to find another solution to this water problem. And so he served lemonade year round. There was always a pitcher full on every table as the diners ate. And for a child it was a dream come true. No milk or just plain water to drink. Even in January there was lemonade. It made – all by itself – going out to dinner with the family special.
But Hans quickly discovered that some of his practices as a restaurateur were unacceptable to his neighbors.
Hans did not approve of the then popular practice throughout the South of providing separate facilities for all non-white patrons.
He allowed all who stopped for a meal to eat in the same dining room. He didn't provide separate bathrooms labeled "White" and "Colored." All were just human beings who wanted to enjoy the quaint atmosphere and good food.
It was my first experience with discrimination. I had always been taught at home that people are people no matter the color of their skin. But there were still many in the area who believed that there was a basic difference and that "white" was somehow better than "colored."
Hans stuck by his guns. He served anyone who came in the door and asked for service. It hurt his business some because local families avoided his restaurant – not wanting to eat in the same room with Negroes.
It was a valuable lesson that events of the last 30 years have taught us was correct.
He never lived to see the change. He was a forerunner, a man with the foresight to see the rightness of things.
And because of Hans and Annelise Simmons, people less fortunate than themselves have benefited. Perhaps even some of those "colored" people realized from their treatment at Ye Blue Tartane that all "whites" weren't ogres. And out in Santa Barbara, California, there lives a lady who learned the lessons of Hans and Annelise Simmons very well.
She is the unpaid executive director of an organization she founded, called The Santa Barbara Council of Christmas Cheer. This organization, which has only two paid employees and 4,000 volunteers, began as a Yuletide project to help the poor and homeless in the Santa Barbara area.
The idea is to provide gifts, food and clothing at this most special time of year. But there is a major difference.
Instead of someone picking out the items and giving them to the less fortunate, the needy are allowed to come into a store and pick out just what they want. It doesn't seem like so much of a handout this way.
This Council of Christmas Cheer has provided assistance to some 3,500 households and 12,000 people in the first three weeks of December this year (1989). It is a remarkable organization, not to mention the concept itself. And very soon there will be a second store to be located in Santa Maria to provide the same services year round.
It may seem like a far stretch from Petersburg to Santa Barbara. But the connection is closer than you might think.
Hans Simmons never stopped giving to friends and strangers alike. He appreciated the freedom America provided. And he, too, had been the beneficiary of the kindness of others when he came to America, and more particularly when he came to Dinwiddie.
And he imparted this very special gift of giving to his children. The lady in California who runs that special organization developed and designed to help others is Barbara Simmons Telefson, the daughter of Hans and Annelise.