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Feature Article on Joseph Altenbach. Topic: PEOPLE
Written by Rich Wallace in August, 1995

ALTENBACH'S ARCHITECTURAL LEGACY STILL LIVES ON IN SHELBY COUNTY

Have you ever noticed that each community has its own identity, and that more often than not we tend to identify a town by referring to some of its significant structures? County seat courthouses and our Big Four Bridge are prime examples. Imagine the sense of pride the builders, whose names are now long forgotten, had for their masterworks. Joseph Altenbach of Sidney knew those feelings. Up until the time he turned his construction business over to his son, Frank, shortly after 1900, he had done more than any other person to change the face and architectural character of our town. This is his story.

His life began inauspiciously enough on a small farm near the village of Freyburg in Auglaize County, Ohio. Desiring to learn the carpentry trade, he moved to Sidney after the war in 1866 in order to apprentice with a carpenter. Soon, however, he set up his own business.

Gaining the respect and friendship of influential people in town was as important then as it is now. For reasons history does not record, Joseph Altenbach developed a close relationship with Mathias Wagner. Wagner and his sons founded many of the businesses that helped Sidney forge its reputation as an industrial center that it enjoys to this day.

In 1883, Wagner purchased the lot on which the first log cabin in Sidney was built. It was located on Court Street across from the Courthouse. Wagner bought the lot for his friend and the person who would soon become the master retailer of western Ohio - I. H. Thedieck. Thedieck and Wagner hired Altenbach to build a fine brick structure to house Thedieck's department store. It was the first of many impressive projects for the ambitious builder. Then as now, most construction projects were handled by soliciting public bids. Altenbach's first success on a bid project came in October, 1888 when he was declared the "lowest and best bidder" for the new Lutheran Church on Water Street in Sidney. Following the plans and specifications of the architect Hasecoester, Altenbach and his men completed the church for the considerable sum of $10,190.68. During construction, church services were conducted by Pastor Minneman in the assembly room of the Shelby County Courthouse. This building served the congregation until it was razed to make room for a larger structure in 1927. As his talents as a builder developed, and word of his impressive workmanship spread, Joseph Altenbach became the most sought after craftsman in western Ohio. In the spring of 1890, he was awarded the contract to construct St. Remy's Catholic Church in Russia. Following the plans of noted Cincinnati architect Louis Piket, Altenbach began work after the laying of the cornerstone on July 17, 1890 and was finished except for the plastering of the sanctuary within five months. When the Wagner family conceived the idea of founding The Wagner Manufacturing Company in 1890, the family once again turned to Altenbach. He built the entire Wagner complex, which is still in use to this day.

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Also in 1890, the Wagners and other industrialists began a recruiting campaign to woo other businesses to Sidney, similar to the activities of the Western Ohio Development Council today. By offering a free building site, the group was able to convince The Buckeye Churn Company of Carey, Ohio to move to Sidney in 1891. Altenbach built the Buckeye Churn facility on Park Street. It manufactured wooden washing machines, butter churns and building products such as doors, siding and shingles. The Prima Washing Manufacturing Company (shown above) later occupied the building. It has since been torn down.

The successful relationships he had developed with the Wagners and I.H. Thedieck were to play a role once more when he was awarded the contract to build a new church for the Holy Angels congregation. The cornerstone on was laid on April 26, 1891. Altenbach faced a daunting task. The plans called for a building 140 feet by 60 feet with two towers- one of which was to be 165 feet high. No Sidney builder had ever attempted such a complex task. Under the watchful eye of Father Quatman, construction steadily progressed. One million bricks were laid. Altenbach and his men toiled for over a year. When the magnificent structure was completed and the church consecrated on May 15, 1892 over 5,000 people from all over the state assembled to view this remarkable edifice. The demand for his services continued to increase. He was awarded contracts for and completed construction of a church and school buildings for both the Catholic and Lutheran congregations in Piqua.

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At right is the Holy Angels church in Sidney, one of many buildings constructed by Altenbach

Other successful projects followed in Sidney as well. Altenbach built the original People's Building and Loan Association building along with several school buildings in Sidney. He also designed and built a number of the elegant residences such as the B. P. Wagner house that still grace our community. One last challenge awaited him, however.

When word spread that the County Commissioners would seek bids for the construction of a children's home, Altenbach of course wanted the work. However, competition would be stiff. His worst fears were realized when bids were opened on December 7, 1894 in the offices of the commissioners. Eleven builders had appeared from all over Ohio to bid this important project. He and rival Sidney builder George Snyder nervously awaited the results. Altenbach's heart sank as the bids were tallied. His bid was the second lowest. Snyder had beaten him out by $50 on the $20,000 project. Lady Luck quickly intervened. After some legal wrangling by both builders, Altenbach was awarded all of the work due to technical errors in Snyder's bid. This contract was to be Altenbach's command performance as a builder.The entire project was to consume more than two years.

The Sidney Journal gave his work glowing accolades in its October 15, 1897 edition. Commenting on the little children who would soon be inhabiting the Home, the Journal opined that "They had, indeed, reason to be satisfied, for a handsomer and better equipped institution of the kind is not to be found in the state." Then as now, however, it is the compelling beauty of the natural setting that furnishes such a fitting background for the stately home. The Sidney Journal reporter concluded his piece that day as follows: "One thing the visitor can not fail to be impressed with is the magnificent view obtainable on every side, but especially from the west. The valley of the Miami River lies spread out like a panorama, and every building of any note in Sidney is distinctly discernible. The home itself is an ornament to the landscape."

Joseph Altenbach would have been thankful for the efforts currently underway to save his building. His granddaughter Loretta Crist certainly is. Now 86 years old, remembers her grandfather well. "He was very proud of that building. It is part of the heritage of our community. Preserving it would be a small tribute to him, but more importantly, preserving and using that beautiful place would allow all of us to share in our heritage." Well said, Mrs. Crist.

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Joseph Altenbach

 

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