Standing at the bottom of the stairwell at 202 W. Fifth St., Washington, in a home built by his grandparents, Theodore and Louisa Muench, 90-year-old Joseph Muench is filled with memories — sliding down the bannister just for fun, standing out back shooting at targets with a .22-caliber rifle, getting water from the hand-dug cistern so his mother and grandmother could wash their hair.
All of that and more came back to Muench this week when he was in town with his daughter, Felicity Muench, for the first time in over 70 years. He came to visit his parents’ gravesites at the Odd Fellows Cemetery (he had never seen them), and to remember some of his fondest childhood experiences.
“I recognize the architecture and all of the brick buildings,” he said. “It’s very distinctive.
“Washington is really an impressive place. The people are very nice, particularly in the service industry.”
Born in Lexingon, Mo., in 1921, the son of Oscar and Florence (Bowers) Muench, Joseph grew up out West.
When he was 2, his family moved first to Boulder, Colo., while his father was earning his Ph.D.
In 1928 they moved to Las Vegas, N.M., where his father was head of the chemistry department at New Mexico Highlands University. That’s when the family began making summer trips every August back to Washington, Mo.
If you recognize the Muench name, you may already be familiar, at least somewhat, with Joseph’s ancestors. He is a direct descendant of Friedrich Muench, who helped lead a group of Germans known as the Giessen Emmigration Society on their move to America in the 1830s with hope of establishing a utopian society. He also was a prolific writer.
Friedrich, who settled in Dutzow, was Joseph’s great-great-grandfather. The lineage is Friedrich, Adolph, Theodore, Oscar and, finally, Joseph.
Friedrich and his brother, George Muench, who established Mount Pleasant Winery in what is now Augusta, were very well-educated and successful men, and many people living here are familiar with their names and work.
Joseph and his daughter, Felicity, however, only recently learned the full extent of their ancestors’ success. Earlier this year, Felicity contacted the Washington Historical Society to find out more information on Friedrich before making a trip to Germany this summer.
Director Marc Houseman mailed her a packet of information, and when she responded by email with a note of thanks, Houseman followed up with an open invitation for her and Joseph to visit Washington, which they promptly accepted.
Houseman took the pair to the Odd Fellows Cemetery where some 25 Muench ancestors are buried, to the Muench home at 202 W. Fifth St. (next to Hardee’s restaurant) and across the river to Friedrich Muench’s homestead and grave. They also met with historian Anita Mallinckrodt.
Down Memory Lane
Joseph said at first he didn’t recognize his grandparents’ home. It’s changed slightly and of course the surrounding land looks nothing like it did 70 and 80 years ago.
“There used to be a balcony on the front,” Joseph recalled. “And I think there was a porch.”
In the back of the home, the porch that Joseph remembers being on one side has been enclosed so a bathroom could be added, and a porch was built off of the other side of the back wall.
The home was built for Theodore and Louisa Muench in the late 1880s. They moved in around 1889, said Joseph Muench.
Theodore was a partner in the Peerless Box & Lumber Co., which was on Front Street in a building that now is home to a car detailing company and a bait shop.
“They made boxes for International Shoe Company and St. Louis shoe companies,” said Joseph.
Originally the home was a 1 1/2-story, said Houseman, pulling out an 1895 photo of it on file at the Washington Historical Society Museum. (The photo also shows the stately two-story brick home that used to stand where the Hardee’s restaurant is being rebuilt after a fire last December.)
Theodore Muench had a full second story added to the house in the early 1900s when their daughter (Joseph’s aunt), Adele, was born. She passed away 10 years ago at age 101.
Joseph’s father, Oscar, was born in 1891, just a few years after the house was built.
The old Muench home has been well cared for and maintained. Today a couple of businesses occupy the space — an insurance company on the first floor and an attorney on the second floor — and the old front parlor area is open for lease.
Standing in what is now the parking lot in what used to be the home’s backyard, Joseph recalled how grapes used to grow on the back fence.
“They harvested the grapes and made wine for themselves,” he said. “They had a chicken coop, too . . . a lot of chickens.
“A dentist, Dr. Mallinckrodt, lived next door, and worked on my teeth every summer. My parents preferred it here, I guess. Things were so different in the West.”
At that time, there were no visible neighbors south of the Muench home on Fifth Street, Joseph said, but the Methodist Church was across the street.
“Everything was within walking distance, but you still felt like you were in the country,” he said.
“Where that bush is (across from the cellar doors) was the hand-dug cistern.”
The family drove to Washington from out West in a Model A Ford. The first five years or so it took three days to arrive, “but in the mid-’30s when the Ford V8s came out, we could make it in two days,” Joseph recalled.
Along the way, the family stayed in what were called “tourist cabins,” since the term motel had yet to be coined.
Their stays in Washington were filled with typical country outdoors fun, although the family always made a trip into St. Louis to shop at Famous-Barr.
“Union was popular then too because there was a swimming pool there, and there weren’t many in those days,” said Joseph.
“We used to swim in the Missouri River. We’d go in about 20 yards. There was a little bit of sandy beach to wade in,” he said.
The riverfront looks far different today, but Joseph said it’s still beautiful.
As Houseman drove him and Felicity across the river to see the Friedrich Muench homestead, Joseph was surprised to see a bridge. He didn’t remember it.
“There was a ferry that used to take people across,” he said.
Cemetery Is Well Kept
Joseph’s father, Oscar Muench, died in 1953 and services for him were held out West where they lived, his body was shipped back to Washington to be buried with his parents.
The same was done for Joseph’s mother when she died in 1979.
Seeing their graves for the first time this week was emotional for him, but it also was heartwarming.
“I felt really good about how beautiful the cemetery looks,” said Joseph, “how well kept up it is.”
Continuing Muench Success
Joseph Muench may have grown up out West but he chose to attend college in Missouri. He graduated from Parks College at St. Louis University and went to work first at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and later at Sandia National Laboratories where he was a reliability engineer on nuclear weapons.
Today he enjoys writing (like his great-great-grandfather), gardening and one of his favorite hobbies is making bread. He does it both the old-fashioned way and also using a bread machine to help with the kneading.
Joseph’s daughter, Felicity, is a classical guitar teacher and guitar professor at Colorado Christian University in Denver. She lives in Boulder, Colo.
Sitting here in The Missourian office, Joseph smiled as he recalled how for years his grandmother, Louisa Muench, used to mail a copy of the local Washington newspaper to her son and his family in Las Vegas, N.M., so he could stay up on his hometown news.
“It was a very small paper then,” Joseph recalled, with a smile. “The postage on it was 1 cent.”