During the 1880s, immigrants by the thousands arrived in Omaha to support a booming economy. Arriving from Germany, the Schaber family brought their labor, skills and elements of their culture. In this article we explore the life of Henry Schaber, former zitherist and resident of Omaha, Nebraska.
Henry Schaber was born in Germany in 1869, the son of Henry and Christina Schaber. Like many other of their fellow Germans, the Schaber family would later immigrate to the United States. Seeking new opportunities, they would set sail to begin a new life together.
The Schaber family arrived in the US in 1880. News events of the day included: Thomas Edison's experiments with the electric railway; over six hundred years in the making, the construction of Cologne Cathedral is completed; James Garfield and Winfield S. Hancock are actively campaigning for the oval office. It is unknown when the Schaber family first received word of the employment opportunities available in Omaha, Nebraska. It could have been via an advertisement in New York or, possibly, a family member had sent word while the family was still in Germany. In any event, it is in Omaha, Nebraska that the Schaber family made their home.
Omaha, during this time period, was growing rapidly. The Union Stockyards and slaughter houses were becoming major employers. Immigrants by the thousands arrived from Europe to help fuel this emerging economy. Census records from 1910 record Henry Schaber's father employed as a laborer at a local meat packaging company. Henry Schaber however, according to census records of the same year, has found employment as a pressman with a local printing company.
Although it is unknown when and where Henry Schaber was first exposed to the zither, it was most likely in his birth country of Germany. After coming to the US, he was sure to have met other Germans who had an appreciation for the instrument and the music of their native homeland. It is possible that his first lessons, as a youth, could have taken place in Omaha. According to the text History of the State of Nebraska, published in 1882 by the Western Historical Company, a zither society existed in Omaha as early as 1880. The text identifies the zither club as "The Omaha Zither Club" with twelve active members.
As Henry Schaber composed a number of songs for the zither, his selected trade proved to be especially complimentary to his musical pursuits. Employing photographs and detailed illustrations, it was in his compositions that his artistic talents converged with his skills as a printer. It is believed that Henry Schaber composed a song for each of his eight children. Unfortunately, only one composition written for his daughter Lottie, the "Lottie Polka," has survived. A cover page for another collection lists his others works as "Marguerite," "Eugenie Waltz," "Henrietta Waltz," "Military March" and the "Harmonie Zither Club March."
It was also in Omaha that he met a German woman who would later become is wife. Eugenie, known by friends and family as Jennie, was originally from Alsace Lorraine and had emigrated from Germany for the US in 1883. Together she and Henry Schaber would have eight children, five girls and three boys.
From surviving family members and records we can come to understand some of Henry Schaber’s personal qualities. According to his great-grandson, Larry Schaber, he had excellent penmanship. From a letter that Henry Schaber had written his son, who was then serving with the 6th Armored Division, he could see that his “writing was beautiful. His penmanship was like his music, it just flowed.” The same letter also indicates that Henry Schaber remained strong and independent into his 80’s as he explains that he was busy painting his home. A devout Catholic, Henry Schaber attended church regularly.
Henry Schaber’s life was music and his musical interests were not limited to just playing the zither. He is reported to have built his own zithers. Surviving photographs show him performing duets and leading an entire orchestra. He formed zither clubs so that zitherists could share and experience music together. Overall, he was a teacher who shared his knowledge of music and appreciation of the zither. As an accomplished musician, he certainly appreciated the full range of expression provided by the zither. One of Henry Schaber's promotional cards, which he used to advertise his services as a zither soloist and instructor reads, "The present day zither, which has from 32 to 48 strings, is probably an evolution from what is known in Bible history as the lyra or zithara. The real zither must not be confounded with what is called the "guitar zither," "mandolin zither," or "piano zither," or the "Columbian zither," and so on down the line of derivations from the zither itself. None of these instruments has a fingerboard and, therfore, is limited to a few chords, whereas the true zither, having a fingerboard with a chromatic scale, can produce all notes and chords."
A life long zitherist, he witnessed the ebb and flow of the zither's popularity in the US. With the movie "The Third Man," released in the US in 1950, the zither experienced a resurgence of interest. This certainly had a revitalizing effect on Henry Schaber. During this period, as zither players were being rediscovered, he was quoted as saying, "A long time ago, the zither died, and I died with it. But we're coming back now, the zither and I."
Our sincere thanks is extended to Trish Kellen and Larry Schaber for sharing the story of their great-grandfather Henry Schaber. If you are aware of any of Henry Schaber's missing compositions, "Marguerite," "Eugenie Waltz," "Henrietta Waltz," "Military March" and the "Harmonie Zither Club March," please contact us.
Stories and photographs of early American zither players are rare. If you've had an ancestor who was a zither player, please consider sharing their story.