When the United States charged into the First World War, anti-German sentiment ran high, even in a city as Teutonic as Cincinnati. City Council banned street names considered “auf Deutsch” and the police arrested hundreds of foreign-born residents on suspicion of seditious intent. The Cincinnati Post asked readers for creative ways to punish Kaiser Wilhelm.
Just 10 years later, however, Cincinnati embraced and celebrated a German veteran who not only enlisted in the German army, but served on der Kaiser’s personal staff. Chef August Johann Hellmers was quite a character, and he became a beloved celebrity in these parts, despite his allegiance to the deposed emperor.
Born in Blumenthal, a small town in northern Germany, Hellmers trained as a cook. He was widowed and raising a daughter while working at a hotel in Berlin when war broke out. At first drafted into the navy, Hellmers’s culinary skills got him transferred to the personal retinue of Kaiser Wilhelm II, King of Prussia and Emperor of Germany. As head chef and chief steward for the imperial headquarters, Hellmers spent much of the war near the front as Wilhelm wanted to oversee his troops closely. In later years, Helmers proudly displayed medals he received from the Kaiser himself, the sultan of Turkey and the czar of Bulgaria. One evening, Wilhelm’s guest was Ludwig III, King of Bavaria. Hellmers told the Cincinnati Post [17 November 1939]:
“I mingled with the king’s oldest servants and I plied them with questions about his favorite dishes when he was a boy. I found out that he was very fond of potato pancakes, which his own mother used to cook for him. So I prepared potato pancakes—lots of them. The pancakes pleased not only the king but the Kaiser. I was called into the dining room and the guest from Bavaria thanked me personally.”
On another occasion, Paul von Hindenburg, then Chief of the Great General Staff, chided Hellmers for serving pike in the Pomeranian style—baked with truffles and bacon and smothered in sour cream—while the troops choked down bland field rations.
One day, Prince Henry of Prussia, the Kaiser’s brother, showed up in Hellmer’s kitchen and asked for something to drink. Hellmers uncorked a fine bottle of red wine and the Prince asked Hellmers to join him in a glass.
With defeat all but certain, “Kaiser Bill” abdicated in 1918 and Hellmers was out of a job. Germany plunged into chaos and civil war following its defeat and Hellmers left the ruined empire, finding work wherever the winds of fate tossed him. As a cook on an ocean liner, he met a clerk named Jeanette Stein on her way to Cincinnati. Hellmers, after a stint at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, followed Jeanette to Ohio and landed the head chef position at the Alms & Doepke department store. August and Jeanette married in 1927.
For the next 20 years, August Hellmers popped up regularly in Cincinnati media. He was a regular guest on radio, describing the preparation of his signature dishes. He cooked a four-course meal and had it delivered by airplane to a customer in Springfield, Ohio. He claimed to be writing a cookbook with 8,000 recipes. (It seems not to have been published.) He started a sculling club that rowed every Sunday in the Ohio River and got a fan letter from von Hindenburg, now the German president. He adopted a system of designated drivers at his restaurants to cut down on drunken driving and suggested all drivers train on simulated streets, much like a film set, before earning their licenses. During World War II, he promoted a peace plan in which World War I veterans would meet in a neutral country to iron out international differences. He invented a self-sanitizing trash can and an alarm system to indicate low fuel levels in automobiles.
Shortly after his marriage to Jeanette, Hellmers left Alms & Doepke and opened his own catering business at 3245 Colerain Avenue. As early as 1893, the Becker family had run a saloon at that address, directly across the street from the City Work House. Prohibition killed that business and the storefront sat empty until 1929, when Hellmers set up shop.
By 1929, the Hellmerses had converted the Colerain location into a restaurant with a large dance floor and top-name bands. They called it the German Village. Once Prohibition ended, the couple redecorated and reopened as a full-service bar and night club. Inspired by August’s sculling team, they renamed it Hellmers Yacht Club. For the next decade, the Hellmerses entertained the cream of Cincinnati society, including the stars visiting WLW radio just around the corner in the Crosley Building.
With the Second World War looming, August pledged allegiance to his new homeland, becoming a naturalized citizen in 1939. By springtime 1942, war raged around the world. The United States prodded factories across the country to convert to military production. The Navy, in particular, needed valves—lots of valves—for the armada of fighting ships arming for combat. To accommodate increased output, Cincinnati’s William Powell Company urgently required more space and convinced the federal government to condemn a quaint old saloon at 3245 Colerain Avenue. Thus ended the storied run of Hellmers Yacht Club. A decaying garage next-door to a vacant Powell factory marks the location today.
August and Jeanette got $20,000 for the place, approximately $320,000 in today’s dollars. They retired to Florida, where the boating season was longer. Both died in 1973.