Sturm was born in Germany in 1837 and received his early education in local German schools. At the age of 14 he left home and set out for the United States. Fourteen was the youngest an unaccompanied youth could book such a passage, indicating Henry’s strong desire to settle in the New World. The next twenty years of his life are unrecorded but my speculation is that he was working in the mercantile trades, including sales of alcohol. According to a biographer, in the mid-1870s Sturm settled in Junction City, Kansas Territory, in government employment, possibly as a storekeeper.
He first came to Dodge City about 1876 when he was 39 years old, a distance of about 210 miles, to establish a wholesale and retail liquor store. In some ways Dodge offered better opportunities than Junction City. Buffalo hunters and traders made it a frequent destination. More important, the town was a stop on the Santa Fe trail. According to one observer, "If you stood on the hill above Dodge City, there was traffic as far as you could see, 24-hours a day, seven days a week on the Santa Fe Trail.” When the railroad arrived in 1872, Dodge’s commercial base became firm, as indicated by a photo of downtown by 1880.
On the negative side, in 1876 here were nineteen places licensed to sell liquor in Dodge City, then a town of only twelve hundred residents. Shown here is the interior of a typical Dodge City saloon. During summer months when transients poured through town business was brisk. For the rest of the year saloons and restaurants depended on the inhabitants — one watering hole for 60 people. The residents did their part — one year the local press reported 300 whiskey barrels had been emptied.
Such reports did little to raise the reputation of the town. A Kansas newspaper in the 1870s reported: “Kansas has but one Dodge City, with a broad expanse of territory sufficiently vast for an empire; we have only room for one Dodge City; Dodge, a synonym for all that is wild, reckless, and violent; Hell on the Plains."
Despite these challenges, Sturm prospered. A year after his arrival he bought the Occidental Saloon from Moses Waters and James Hanrahan. It is shown here as reconstructed as part of the “Old Dodge” exhibit. Sturm advertised…”a pint, a keg, or barrel of the very best, old Irish, hot Scotch, six year old hand made sour mash Kentucky copper distilled bourbon or old Holland gin.”
Sturm also became the agent for Schlitz beer out of Milwaukee. With the coming of the railroad, it became possible to fresh shipments of brew regularly. According to accounts, Sturm once unloaded an entire boxcar of Schlitz into his ice house and sold it to a horde of cowboys, resulting in a epidemic of drunkenness in Dodge.
Now firmly established in business, in 1878 Sturm took a bride. She was Regina Berg, originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, where Henry may have worked for a time, and of German immigrant parents. The difference in their ages was notable. He was 42, she was 18. They would have a family of three girls. In the meantime, Henry was gaining a local reputation for fair dealing and probity that saw him elected twice as Dodge City’s treasurer and at least once as councilman. “Mr. Sturm is a fair, square and honorable man,” opined the Dodge City Times in 1883.
His civic work brought him increasingly into efforts to tame Dodge City’s image as a lawless Wild West frontier town. It violence was brought home to him in early September, 1879, when, following an altercation, a tailor shop owner sitting on a bench next door to Sturm’s saloon was brained with a rifle by a drunken antagonist.
Sturm’s sternest test came during what was known as “The Saloon War of 1883.” The conflict began when authorities arrested three women singers at Luke Short’s Long Branch Saloon. When things escalated, Short was banished from Dodge. Himself quick with a gun, Short was backed by gunslingers like Bat Masterson, shown here, described at the time as “one of the most dangerous men in the West.” Repairing to Topeka, Kansas, Short and Masterson assembled a gang of gunslingers with the purpose of returning to Dodge and getting revenge.
Sturm put himself on the line, signing an anti-gang telegram on May 13, 1883, to a reluctant Kansas governor, George Washington Glick, asking for state troops. He also signed an anti-gang article sent to the Topeka Daily Capital newspaper. When Masterson and Short threatened to bring their rowdies to Dodge by train, the local sheriff enlisted local guns. High tension gripped the town for days. In the end, the issues were negotiated and no shots fired. Masterson returned to Dodge a year later where he opened a short-lived newspaper, principally it seems to justify his position.
Meanwhile another even more serious challenge had arisen for Sturm. Kansas always had harbored a prohibition-leaning population, individuals who saw in liquor the cause of the unrest and violence that marked the state’s history. In 1881, those forces pushed through a relatively weak “temperance” law. It did virtually nothing to curb the sale of alcohol through store or saloons. Proprietors like Sturm annually paid a small fine and kept the doors open. The meantime the German immigrant was pursuing other avenues. He built a bottling plant where he manufactured a range of soft drinks, including soda, mineral waters and cider. He owned two ice houses, respectively 20 by 230 feet and 30 by 50 feet and regularly stored 400 tons of ice to supply the city
In 1885, however, a new law, one with real force, was enacted by the State Legislature. Sturm and his colleagues had no choice but to shut down their watering holes. He advertised the sale of eighty barrels of four-year-old whiskey and other liquor. He even sold the bar fixtures. The law, however, still allowed the sale of alcohol for “medicinal, mechanical, and scientific purposes.” Henry Sturm became a “druggist” with permission to sell alcohol for those purposes, locating the new enterprise just down the street from his old saloon. His druggist’s permit, recently donated to a Dodge City museum, was dated Nov. 30, 1885.
One author has described this blatant effort to circumvent the prohibition laws:“…Druggists equipped their shops with a rude plank or bar, set up whiskey barrels to accommodate the legions of suffering who daily arrived for medical aid.
….The most preposterous device of the time, not uncommon, was the ‘refillable prescription for chronic alcoholism.’” While Sturm also served his brands of soft drinks in his drug store, liquor was its mainstay — as it was for hundreds of similar enterprises throughout Kansas.
Carry Nation, the crusading prohibitionist, had recently moved back into Kansas and led the campaign to close those establishments, wielding a hatchet as she went from town to town, shouting at proprietors, “Stand aside, you felonious purveyor of bottled drugs from Hell!” Although no evidence exists that she ever visited Dodge City, her rampages made news throughout America. Sturm could never be sure she would not show up at his front door someday, swinging her hatchet.
This possibility may have been part of his motivation for helping to build an church in Dodge City. With beer shipments no longer arriving regularly, one of his ice houses became superfluous. He had it torn down and donated the stone to build St. Cornelius Episcopal Church, completed in 1898. Shown here, the small edifice has been described as a “little gem — the most artistic building in Dodge City.” Still standing, the church architecture has been compared the chapels of rural England.
In middle age Sturm developed health problems. In March 1886 Denver newspapers noted his arrival, “a prominent merchant from Dodge City” for unspecified medical treatment. In 1897 at the age of 60, he died and was buried in Dodge City’s Maple Grove Cemetery, Section 3. Regina would join him there 50 years later. Shown here is their joint tombstone.
In a town filled with colorful and flamboyant characters, Henry Sturm stands out as the kind of solid citizen that help build respectability for Western towns. The statement he signed onto about the Luke Short and Bat Masterson gang set the tone: “The occasion or what the press have called trouble is…a clearing out of an element composed of bold daring men of illegal profession who, from toleration from the respectable portion of the community, are allowed to gain a prestige found difficult to unseat. This element has to be banished….”