Kurt P. Oppermann Papers,   1887, 2007
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History

Biography:

Kurt Peters Oppermann was born on November 24, 1898 in Saginaw, Michigan, the son of Antoinette “Netty” Peters (1870-by August 16, 1936) and Gustav F. Oppermann (February 6, 1863-June 13, 1932). Kurt was the third of seven children born to Netty and Gus after they married in 1891, including: Arthur “Art” Peters (born 1893); Helen “Letto” (born 1895); Kurt Peters (born 1898); Eugene “Jene” or “Gene” Peters (born 1900); Paul “Barney” Peters (born 1903); Robert “Bob” Peters (born 1906); and Peters “Pat” (born 1908). They lived in the family mansion at 130 North 6th Street in Saginaw.

Gustav was the eldest son of Frederick Oppermann, a German furrier who migrated to New York, Boston, and, finally, Saginaw by 1865, where he founded the Oppermann Fur Company. Frederick was born and trained as a furrier in Germany. He married Helene Nerreter and died in 1908.

Gustav studied music at the National Conservatory of Music and studied painting with Dr. Karl Kanzler. In 1891 he returned to Saginaw where he married Antoinette “Netty” Peters. They then moved to New York City where they lived for four years while Gustav worked for A. Jaeckel and Co., a fur company. In 1895, they returned to Saginaw and Gustav joined the family firm. Gustav’s sons, Art and Kurt, both worked in the business regularly. When Art and Kurt were in the service during World War I, Eugene worked at the company.

Netty was the eldest daughter of Anna (Seemann) Peters (1847-1917) and Charles H. Peters, of the Seemann and Peters newspaper business in Saginaw. Her siblings were: Edwin C. Peters, Mrs. Meta Peters Hedrich; Charles H. Peters; Mrs. H. B. Anderson; Joseph S. Peters; and Mrs. Alfred (Anneral) Itte. Correspondence between Netty and her parents and siblings demonstrates that they were a loving, close-knit family.

Kurt had a close relationship with his parents and siblings. He wrote his parents, particularly his mother every few days. His mother wrote to him at least monthly. Both Nettie and Helen “Letto” began letters to Kurt as Dear “Kurtibus” and Nettie also wrote to “My dear Kurtie boy,” or used the German “Kurtchen”. There is also one letter she wrote to Eugene which begins “Jenibus”…

Both Gus and Art played the violin and Kurt played the cello. The entire family enjoyed attending musical events. The Oppermanns were active in the Germania Society as well as musical organizations and orchestras in Saginaw.

Kurt’s correspondence with his parents began when he attended summer camp in 1914 at Torch Lake. He had fun there and sent typical letters home which were full of homesickness and a list of daily events. In 1916 he moved to Chicago and lived with his Aunt Anneral Itte, apparently his mother’s sister, who was having a very unhappy life with Kurt’s uncle, Al Itte. Kurt unknowingly moved in when things were getting terrible. Al had apparently sold Anneral’s engagement ring to pay off his debt without telling her. Kurt enjoyed attending musical events and taking cello lessons from Mr. Bruno Steindels, a recognized cellist, while in Chicago. After recovering from piles in June 1916, Kurt became a dedicated Christian Scientist. Later in his letters he invited his friends and family to consider his religious perspectives. At first, his beliefs were upsetting to his mother, but she shortly thereafter converted and became a Christian Scientist herself.

His parents were encouraged to consider sending him to college by Eugene C. Warriner, who was then the principal of Saginaw High School. Warriner was of course President of Central Michigan University, 1918-1939, after serving as in 1895 as principal of East Saginaw High School, and in 1899 the superintendent of the Saginaw school system, a position he served in for 18 years. Kurt graduated from Saginaw High School in 1915. A letter from Gus to Kurt in 1916 notes that Gus felt Kurt could have a successful career in either the fur business or playing the cello and left the decision of his future to Kurt. In October 1916, Kurt went to the University of Michigan (U of M) on a special high school and lyceum scholarship worth $200. At the U of M, Kurt joined Sinfonia House fraternity and the Symphonia Orchestra, attended football games, and took cello lessons from Marion C. Weir. In March 1917 Kurt heard Pablo Casals sing, which he enjoyed immensely. His first term classes are not listed or discussed in detail. In January 1918 he was briefly at Camp Custer. The following month he began his second term at UM taking: Sociology, German, Fine Arts, Rhetoric, Philosophy, Art and Culture 19th c. His fees: dues/room $39; board $47; breakfast $15; gym $2; RR$6; Books $8; Supplies $1; Reserve $8. or $125 total. He spent at least part of the summer in Ann Arbor taking lessons and classes.

On September 3, 1918 Kurt’s “number was up” (his words indicating that he was drafted) and he became a private in Company 1, Battalion 1, 160th D[epot] Brigade, the [U of M] Mechanics Division. He remained at Camp Custer from September 3, 1918 until January 8, 1919, when he was formally discharged as a corporal. The brothers wrote of their shared and similar experiences. Art was torn between wanting to serve his country and helping his parents, particularly his father with the fur business.

Kurt never returned to the U of M to finish his degree. In March 1919 his brother, Gene, attended the U of M. Kurt advised Gene to study first and join Sinfonia House later. By March 1919, Kurt worked at his father’s store in the furrier business.

From April through August 1920, Kurt worked in New York City for Mr. A. Jaeckel’s, a furrier firm for whom Frederick Oppermann had worked. Kurt hoped to work half-time and attend school half-time, but he never returned to school. The Oppermann Fur Co. bought a lot of furs from Jaeckel’s over the decades.

By the beginning of August 1921, Kurt worked full-time at the Oppermann Fur Company, located in buildings at 208-210-212 Lapeer Ave., Saginaw. He became a fur agent for the company working from April 1922 in Chicago, September 1925 in New York City, October 1925 in Chicago and New York. In May-June 1926 Kurt was in Massachusetts, and later that month in Philadelphia and New York. His 1927 business card announces him as “K. Oppermann fur dealer.”

Something happened with Art who was managing the Saginaw store. In surviving business correspondence to customers and companies (suppliers of furs and other goods), 1920-1925, notably in 1924, Kurt repeatedly wrote that the Oppermann Fur Co. did not have sufficient funds to pay their bills that month but hoped to next month, that paper work regarding furs, and the actual furs had been misplaced, etc. Clearly something was wrong. His siblings basically demanded that Kurt take over the business at that time due to Art’s mismanagement of the company. During the late 1930s finances in general worsened with the Great Depression. In letters to Kurt, all of his siblings, except Art, wrote that they held Art responsible for ruining the business and therefore all of their futures through mismanagement. Gene pushed Kurt by November 16, 1936 to push Art onto “the right track” to avoid the disgrace and destitution of the family and for Kurt to impose a system on the business to get it going. Kurt created daily reports of the business trying to keep the company solvent and changed the operation in ways he felt would be positive. However, by 1939 the company ceased to exist.

Kurt contracted pulmonary tuberculosis after he was assigned to care for men suffering with influenza at Camp Custer in late 1918. A letter from October 7, 1922 states that he definitely had tuberculosis. He had medical examinations in 1923 and 1924 and was hospitalized periodically during 1928 through 1930 in Castle Point, a Veterans Administration hospital in Beacon, New York. Many of his friends with whom he corresponded in the 1920s and 1930s also stayed periodically in the Castle Point due to tuberculosis or related illnesses. Kurt tried to get government recognition of his illness, but the government repeatedly turned him down, even when Representative Bird of Saginaw petitioned on his behalf in 1929. Later, in the 1930s his illness was finally officially recognized. Kurt’s friend, Ben Bartlett, wrote a note on Kurt’s behalf in which he said he had known Kurt all his life, served with him at Camp Custer, and knew that during the influenza epidemic Kurt had been ordered to care for sick men in a number of tents.

Another result of his having tuberculosis was the purchase of a 15-acre farm called Arrowhead in Tittabawassee Township by Kurt in August 1931. He later stated in a March 1937 letter to his brother Bob that he needed the farm’s good air, presumably for his lungs.

Either the veterans themselves or the hospital staff wrote to the public requesting pen pals for hospitalized veterans. Two letters Kurt received document this. One is dated May 20, 1929 and is from Isabella Burke of Buffalo, New York. She introduced herself to an unknown veteran, Kurt. The next letter is from Janie Carpenter of Victoria, Texas, dated May 29, 1929. She asked if he was the man who wrote to Pictorial Review and signed as “Top Sergeant.” Janie hoped her letters would “cheer the men up.”

Besides the numerous, mostly female, penpals who wrote him while hospitalized, Kurt also heard regularly from his male and female friends from Ann Arbor, Saginaw, and New York City, as well as his relatives. One of his pen pale, Mollie Jensen, wrote to Kurt via a friend due to her jealous, abusive husband, Norman. Mollie and Kurt wrote to each other from 1927 through 1929 when she finally divorced Norman. Molly was a friend of a woman named Christine who had apparently caused Kurt great heart ache about 1928. Kurt had eventually forgiven Christine, but clearly felt he had been wronged. Additional documentation on their relationship does not exist.

Kurt had many lady friends and penpals, but never married. Beginning in May 1920 Kurt had a relationship with a woman named Dorothy “Doree” [Anderson]. He wrote in a diary about it. Over June 21-22 he writes of “the wedding” and “her room”. He traveled to the AuSable River on July 2nd and on August 24th returned to New York City, which apparently ended the relationship. Kurt also had a penpal, Dorothy Miller, who was his girlfriend, although this was likely mostly a long-distance emotional affair, from 1921 through 1922. Kurt was also engaged to Mabel de Fere in January 1929. They never married. His opinions about the women and their relationships are known only from a few extant drafts of his correspondence to these women in the collection.

A number of Kurt’s female friends were Christian Scientists who had “C.S.” after their names on their stationery. They wrote largely about their faith and often included prayers and religious clippings with their correspondence. It is likely that some of these women were his religious mentors.

About 1931 Kurt’s friends mention the photographs he has taken and sent to them and how good they are. In 1929, Kurt ordered a camera. He was an amateur photographer. By April 22, 1931 Kurt won some type of artistic prize, possibly for photography.

In 1932, Gustav died. Friends wrote to Kurt, including Ben Bartlett, about how Gus had grounded so many people in music. It is clear the Gus loved music, was actively involved in music, and was an active proponent of music. In 1936 Kurt’s beloved mother, Nettie, died. She was remembered by Kurt’s friends as lovely and charming. Her estate was complicated because it involved the family mansion at 130 North Sixth Avenue, the Oppermann Fur Company business, the Joseph Seemann legacy, and Seemann and Peters publishing stock. Kurt bought his siblings’, Helen and Robert’s, shares of the mansion for $500 each. He and his brother, Eugene, then moved into the Oppermann mansion. Kurt lived there the rest of his life, renting one floor out as needed to tenants. Kurt also relinquished all business in the Oppermann Fur Company to his brother, Arthur P. Oppermann.

Kurt continued to play the cello throughout his life. He was invited to join the International House String Quartet in June 1928. In 1937 at least one letter in the General Correspondence reminds him of a scheduled orchestra committee meeting. He also bought music from and corresponded with John Prindle Scott, a New York City composer who had previously attended Oberlin and taught singing in Saginaw.

A late 1938 letter to E. C. Warriner from Kurt notes that Kurt considered becoming a teacher. This may have been in response to Kurt realizing that the fur business days were ending. An interesting letter dated February 22, 1938 to Kurt from LeRoy Hamilton talks about the Upper Peninsula’s top Civilian Conservation Corps basketball team, the 668th, at Camp Morman Creek, F-30 Rapid River, Michigan.

In the 1940s most of Kurt’s surviving general correspondence is not with friends but with the city about taxes and re-paving sidewalks.

By the 1950s Kurt became interested in urban renewal. He was a co-founder in 1961 of the Saginaw Historical Preservation Museum Association. The association tried to convince the public and politicians to save the Webber House, but the costs were exorbitant and funds limited. As a result, the massive house was destroyed. Kurt was also active in the 1930s in saving the Castle Post Office, now the Castle Museum and home of the Hoyt Public Library. He was also interested in family history and became the official Oppermann family historian.

In 1971 Kurt sold his property at 130, 122, 121, and 125 North 6th Street and his 15-acre farm called Arrowhead on US 10 and Sarle Road in Tittabawassee to Pat. The collection does not document when he physically stopped living at the house.

Kurt never married. He was apparently in love with at least four women in his life, including Christina circa 1928, and Margaret in 1930. He also had a relationship with Dorothy Miller, 1921-1922 and 1925. It is clear he was frustrated with them at the end of their relationships. Exactly what type of relationships they had is unknown. He was also apparently engaged to Mabel de Fere by January 5, 1939, but they never married.

Kurt died on July 17, 1977 in the Saginaw Veterans Administration Hospital. He was 79. He was survived by his sister Helen (Mrs. John T. Edgerly), and his brothers Robert Peters Oppermann, and Peters “Pat” Oppermann. Also, according to his obituary he was a life member of the Germania Society and the Saginaw Historical Society.

Kurt’s Siblings: Arthur “Art” Peters Oppermann (born 1893) married Hulda and had two children: Joan and Peter. About 1920 he began a Ladies Day Time Wear Shop with clothing from New York City’s 5th Avenue as an additional part of the Oppermann Fur Co. in the new Hotel Durant Building. While he had good intentions, Art apparently was not the best business man. As a result, by 1924 the store began to fail. As noted above, Kurt was called in to save the business, which still closed by 1939.

Helen Oppermann (born 1895) married John T. Edgerly by 1925. Together they had two children: Janet and Jim. The Edgerlys lived in Saginaw, New Jersey, and later Wilmington, Delaware.

Eugene “Gene” Peters Oppermann (1900-1942) married Stella by August 7, 1926, with whom he had one daughter, Anne and perhaps more children. Gene worked in Washington, D.C. in 1936. In 1938 he worked for the Department of Interior U.S. Housing Authority. In 1939 Gene was a Housing Manager in the Detroit Housing Commission, a job he found difficult due to racial tensions. Gene died by August 1, 1942, probably of cancer. Gene’s daughter Anne married Bill (surname unknown) in 1952. Kurt walked her down the aisle. Together Anne and Bill had two children: David and Peter.

Paul “Barney” Peters Oppermann (born 1903) married Kay, with whom he had three daughters: Kyla, Margaret, and Adelaide.

Robert “Bob” Peters Oppermann (born 1906) eloped with Stella Jessop on November 26, 1927 in Chicago. Their elopement was quite a shock to their families. Bob worked in Flint at DuPont from 1925 through at least 1932. He and Stella had a son, George Augustus, by January 14, 1935. By 1973 Bob and Stella had three grandchildren: Roxanne, Bobby and Deborah, the children of Lois and Robert. Tony and Paula, probably other grandchildren, are also mentioned. By 1975 Kay was having problems making decisions and Barney needed to be put into a home.

Peters “Pat” Oppermann (born 1908) attended Denison College in Grandville in 1928. He took German, Algebra, Psychology, Music Appreciation, English, and Physical Education classes. He tried to get into the Glee Club, but they had enough basses already and so rejected him. There is a 1922 letter from Pat’s friend, Paul F. H. Morley. Clearly as children, Pat and Paul were chums. In 1927-1928, Pat operated the Oppermann Radio Supply Company out of his parents’ home. In 1930 Pat mentions Adelaide (his niece?) being at school. In 1971 Kurt sold his property at 130, 122, 121, and 125 North 6th Street and Arrowhead farm to Pat.