The Turner Society (Turngemeinde) was originally established in Germany in 1811 by Frederick Ludwig Jahn. The purpose of the society was to provide physical and mental education to its members. In 1848, the first Turner Society in the United States was established in Cincinnati, Ohio.
In 1855, a number of German residents in Covington gathered together to discuss the establishment of a Turner Society in their community. On September 13, 1855, the Covington Turners were officially established.
The society’s presence quickly became a target of anti-immigrant antagonists. During its early years, the group had provided assistance to newly arriving German immigrants to Covington, and the use of German language to conduct meetings at the hall led many local nativists to interpret the Turner’s attempts at preserving German culture as subversive to the American way of life.
In May of 1856, on Whit Monday, the day after Pentecost, the Covington Turners held a picnic at Forest Hill Park, today’s Botany Hills neighborhood, west of town. The picnic included not only Turners from Covington, but Cincinnati, and Newport as well, who were there to witness the unveiling of a new flag for the Covington Turners.
Trouble broke out between armed Turners at the picnic, and a group of rowdy teenagers who had crashed the party to steal some beer. The boys ran into town accusing the Turners of beating them. A large mob soon formed. Sensing trouble the Turners ended the celebration early and left for their homes. What followed was a riotous march through the city of Covington.
Armed Turners formed ranks around the women and children and marched through the streets. Most of the Covington Turners returned to their homes safely, while Newport and Cincinnati members, who had to use the Newport Ferry to cross back into Ohio, were pelted with stones by the unruly mob on their journey. The Turners fought back, and in the melee, Covington Town Marshal, Clinton Butts, was shot in the arm, eventually losing his hand, while one of his deputies was struck in the head by a saber blow.
The Turners made it to Newport. While the women and children were allowed to cross on the ferry, the men were not. Held up in Newport’s Turnhall, the armed Turners negotiated a peace with a group of leaders which included Covington mayor Bushrod Foley. Several members of the group were arrested, and sent back across the Licking River to the Covington Jail. It would take 2 years for these men to receive a fair trial. By then the riot was old news. A new sectional crisis threatened to tear the U.S. apart, Slavery. The Turner’s troubles with the locals soon faded away.
In 1857, the Covington Turners acquired a home on Pike Street. These new facilities included an area for exercise, a saloon and meeting rooms. The outbreak of the Civil War, however, nearly dissolved the society because many of its members had enlisted in the Union Army and were marched off to war.
By the wars end, membership rebounded and, in 1870, a temporary building was acquired for the society at the corner of Pike and Ninth Street while the group planned for the construction of a more permanent hall. On May 10, 1877, the cornerstone of the new building was officially set into place.
The new hall was dedicated on October 1, 1877. In 1905, the Covington Turner Society celebrated its golden jubilee. Members of the Women’s Auxiliary were instrumental in planning the event. At that time, membership stood at 150. By 1915, the use of the German Language was discontinued at Turner meetings, and the group changed its official name from Turngemeinde to the Covington Turners Society.
Many prominent Covingtonians were members of the society at that time. One was William Riedlin Sr., owner of the nearby Bavarian Brewery. By the 1950s, membership had dropped as Covington residents began moving to the suburbs. To prevent the society’s closure, women were accepted as full- time members. This decision increased membership and provided a greater stability within the organization. In 1955, the 100th anniversary of the Covington Turners was celebrated.
Turner Hall has been a mainstay in the local tri-state area ever since, running youth programs in its small, yet historic gymnasium located at 447 Pike Street in Covington. Leagues for both boys and girls basketball, softball, and baseball have been sponsored by the Covington Turners for over 50 years. Adult leagues are also available for its members.
The annual Christmas basketball tournament hosts some of the regions best up-and-coming players, and the Covington Turners Ludlow Rat Race held annually on the eve of the Kentucky Derby is also a community favorite.