From apprentice bootmaker to real estate broker, Joseph Bassen found success in Hannibal, Missouri
MARY LOU MONTGOMERY
Three German-born boys, each venturing to American on their own, stepped off the SS Koln at Baltimore, Md., on June 10, 1872. They had traveled together, steerage class, aboard the Atlantic steamer from Bremen, Germany, for eight or nine days, leaving behind their homeland and relocating to America.
All three then traveled together half way across the continent to Hannibal, Missouri, where one of the teens had two brothers with a shoe cobbler business already established. The other two young men traveled on, one settling in Nebraska and the other in Shelby County, Mo. As the three young men bid farewell at Hannibal, they had no idea if they would ever see each other again in this vast, unfamiliar country.
The travelers were Joachim Bassen, 13, who Americanized his name to Joseph when he arrived in Hannibal; Johann Mahnke, 15, who settled at Hunnewell, Mo.; and John Henry Ficken, 15, who would go on to become a prosperous farmer in Nuckolls County, Neb.
A half century after they shook hands and bid farewell at Hannibal, the youngest of the three, Joseph Bassen, marked his 64st birthday. He reached out to his two travel companions from 51 years prior, and invited them to visit Hannibal.
John H. Ficken declined due to ill health, but Johann Mahnke and his wife agreed to travel from Hunnewell to Hannibal in order to make the proposed reunion a reality.
Imagine the emotion when the two old German-born men once again clasped their hands together at Hannibal.
Settles in Hannibal
When Joseph Bassen arrived in Hannibal, his brother, John H. Bassen – 12 years his senior - was living with his wife’s father at the southeast corner of Market and Turn streets in Hannibal. Joseph moved in with the extended family, consisting of John Bassen’s wife, Kate Myers Bassen, their 1-year-old daughter Emma Bassen, and Kate’s father and brother, John Myers, 56, and Frederick Myers, 21.
John H. Bassen’s cobbler shop was located at 200 Bird Street, and Joseph went to work there as an apprentice alongside his other brother, Frederick.
immigrants in Hannibal
The Bassens joined a growing population of recent German immigrants to Hannibal, many of whom started businesses catering to the specific needs of the community. While all worked to learn the language of their adopted land, businesses that catered to the Germans made assimilation into American culture easier.
A German-based social organization, known as the Turners, established a hall on Hill Street just west of North Main, allowing those of German heritage to socialize together. In addition, the German Lutheran Church facilitated familiar worship services for this population. Joseph Bassen would remain affiliated with this church for the remainder of his life.
Two years after Joseph Bassen arrived in Hannibal, his brother with whom he lived, John A. Bassen, died at the age of 28. He left behind a widow, a young daughter and an infant son, plus the two younger brothers who were dependent upon him for their livelihood.
The surviving brothers and young widow rallied together, helping each other through this major personal and financial tragedy in their family. They buried John A. Bassen at Riverside Cemetery – where other family members would also be buried in later years - and moved ahead with building a strong shoe production and retail sales establishment in Hannibal.
By 1877, Frederick Bassen, with his younger brother’s assistance, moved the business establishment to 118 North Main Street. In 1879, Joseph and his brother Frederick opened the “Star Shoe Store” at 308 Broadway. In 1891, Joseph Bassen sold his half of the business to his brother, and worked for five years or more for the Logan Shoe Company. Beginning in 1897, and again in 1898, he served Hannibal as as city collector.
Joseph married Mary Schlobohn on Aug. 14, 1885, in the German community of Quincy, Ill. They would later have four children, Fannie, Annie, Pearl and Marie.
At the turn of the 20th Century, Joseph Bassen changed his career path, going to work in the real estate and insurance business, which ultimately resulted in his association in the Bassen & Spencer firm, serving Hannibal and surrounding counties. His office was in the German-American Bank building.
One of Bassen & Spencer’s more notable sales involved W.B. “Way-Bill” Jones, former superintendent of the Prescott & Arizona Central railway. Jones, who later in life lived in Missouri, purchased two properties in Hannibal in 1907, with grand plans for renovation and construction in Hannibal’s infrastructure.
He purchased the I.M. Cramer property, located on West Church street, immediately west of the old Herbert Derwin property. Plans were to remove an old barn, replacing it with “four flats.” He also bought the Gould property at the corner of Seventh and Church streets, and planned to convert it into a double flat, and to build a residence on the lot.
Joseph Bassen applied for a passport on May 1, 1914, presumably to revisit his homeland. His description, as recorded on the application, noted he was 5 feet, 6 inches tall, with gray eyes and hair, and a light complexion. He was 56 years old.
As Joseph Bassen aged, he gained an uncanny resemblance to Hannibal’s most famous author, Mark Twain. Among other appearances posing as the great author, Bassen rode in the procession of the 1935 pageant “Mark Twain’s First Hundred Years,” which re-enacted the humorist’s visit in 1902 to the scenes of his childhood.
Joseph Bassen outlived his bothers and wife, and they are all buried at Riverview Cemetery in Hannibal. Frederick Bassen died in 1935 at the age of 85. Joseph’s wife, Mary, died on March 20, 1941. Joseph died in March 1943.
Editor’s note: Information about the 1922 reunion of shipmates based upon a June 23, 1922 story in the Quincy Daily Journal: “Two chums are reunited after 50 year period.”
Information about the sale of property to W.B. “Way-Bill” Jones came from the Prescott Morning Courier, Prescott, Arizona, March 28 1907, genealogy bank.com
Cutline: Joseph Bassen was a bootmaker, and possibly made the boots he is wearing in this photo. This photo from an ancestry.com family tree posted by mari_ryan, reprinted with permission.
Cutline: Joseph Bassen and wife Mary Schlobohm were married in Quincy, Ill., about 1883. The spent their life together in Hannibal. This photo from an ancestry.com family tree posted by mari_ryan, reprinted with permission.