The B. Glockner Building at 206 Market Street illustrates the contribution of German immigrants to the nineteenth-century development of Portsmouth, Ohio. And the building’s restoration — following a fire in January 2016 — has contributed to the cultural and economic revival of the city’s historic Boneyfiddle District.
Tim Glockner (the great-great-great-grandson of Bernard Glockner, for whom the building is named) purchased the property in 2017, with the goal of celebrating the past, present, and future of the family business, which had its start in the building in 1874. What began as a hardware and cutlery store on Market Street would develop into an automobile dealership in the 1910s when Alex Glockner, son of Bernard and Magdalene began selling Chevrolets in Portsmouth.
Today Bernard Glockner is rightly celebrated as the founding patriarch of the Glockner business empire that includes dealerships throughout southern Ohio and northeastern Kentucky. “Bernie G.” has become a “local legend,” whose life is commemorated with a beer named in his honor. The creation of the Portsmouth Brewing Company (whose origins also are found in the city’s German immigrant community), “Bernie G.” is a Dortmunder Lager (4.5% ABV). The back label reads: “Here’s to Bernie, the historically hardworking people of Portsmouth, Ohio and everyone who believes in the American Dream.”
He was born in 1825 in the village of Bingen in Baden-Württemberg, Germany. Bernard immigrated to the United States at the age of twenty-two and settled in Portsmouth in 1847. His earliest days in the town are obscured by time, but he eventually found employment with J.L. Hibbs & Co., a hardware store located on Front Street.
In 1854, Bernard married Magdalena Beck, another native of Bingen, who had immigrated to the United States in 1853. The following year, she would give birth to their first son, Frank. Five more children followed.
Over the next two decades Bernard learned the hardware trade, established a reputation as a talented salesman and ultimately saved enough money to purchase the hardware business of another successful German immigrant, John Rottinghaus.
Rottinghaus had himself purchased the business from another earlier German immigrant, S. J. Meyer. And from reporting in the Portsmouth Times it appears that the hardware business purchased by Bernard in 1874, had its origins in April 1859, when Meyer and C. Brown “opened a new hardware store on Market Street.”
Bernard would successfully run the business for two years, before an untimely death in 1876. His widow, Magdalena, would then oversee the company’s business for nearly thirteen years before she was severely injured by a fall off one of the store’s step ladders. She may never have fully recovered from the accident — Magdalena Glockner died two years later in 1891.
Magdalena emerged as a pioneering Portsmouth business woman. After Bernard’s death, she would change the company’s name to M. Glockner & Sons. And following her death, son Alex would ultimately take the helm of the company and under his leadership bicycles, tractors, horse-drawn buggies, and eventually automobiles became the family’s primary line of business.
In 1912, Alex opened the company’s second and enlarged location at the corner of Gallia and Gay. Three years later he secured the firm’s first automobile franchise from W.C. Durant of Chevrolet Motors. Beginning in September, coinciding with the city’s annual fall festival, Alex Glockner advertised his first two models, a four passenger and a five passenger “touring car,” selling for $490 and $750, respectively (the equivalent of $12,286 and $18,805 in 2018).
On October 12th, 1915, the Portsmouth Daily Times reported: “Alex M. Glockner was all smiles Tuesday when a carload of Chevrolet automobiles arrived at his address [on] Gay and Gallia streets. The car load consists of one Baby Grand and two of the ‘Four-Ninety’ models and they are now on display. No sooner had they arrived than a large crowd collected to view this famous make of cars, which considering their size and beauty, are generally regarded as exceptionally cheap in price.”
Today, Glockner’s is recognized as “the oldest continuously owned and operated” Chevrolet franchise in the United States. And this original agency is now part of a “family of dealerships,” which includes Honda, Toyota, Ford, GMC, Buick, Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and RAM brands, with locations in Portsmouth, Ironton, South Point, Waverly, Jackson, Chillicothe and Ashland, Kentucky.
With its humble beginnings in a mid-nineteenth century German immigrant-owned hardware store, the evolution of the business and the restoration of the B. Glockner Building illustrates how one family’s entrepreneurial and civic spirit (and a commitment to historic preservation) can contribute to a city’s longterm economic development.