Ask McGehee: Where did the name of the Leinkauf historic district originate?

old postcard of Leinkauf school in 1914
This postcard shows Leinkauf School in 1914. The photo was taken after the two additions — the second story, which converted the building from one story into two, and the wing — were completed. // Photo courtesy Historic Mobile Preservation Society

That designated district, located south of Government Street, is named for the historic public school located on Church Street. Leinkauf is the oldest continuously operating elementary school in Alabama and originally opened its doors in 1903.

The new school was named to honor Hungarian-born William Herman Leinkauf, who had served on the local school board for 30 years and presided over it for 20. He had died just two years earlier and was president at the time.

A Dauphin Street Merchant

William Leinkauf arrived in Mobile at the age of 21 in 1848 and married Caroline Bloch six years later. He established a “variety store” with two Dauphin Street locations by the outbreak of the Civil War. In the early 1870s, he was operating a dry goods emporium at 35 Dauphin Street and joined forces with Bavarian-born Leopold Strauss to form a wholesale dry goods firm by 1876.

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According to court records, Leinkauf and Strauss successfully sued the owners of the steamship Vidette when she sank with over $8,000 worth of merchandise (roughly $250,000 in today’s dollars) from New York bound for their store in Mobile in 1887. The wooden-hulled vessel took on water some 90 miles east of Dauphin Island and sank by the stern. The captain and the crew survived but the cargo sank to the bottom of the Gulf. The case was won when it was proved the vessel was not sea-worthy.

Leinkauf and Strauss advertised “Staple and Fancy Dry Goods, Notions and Hats” in 1888 and were operating at 9 and 11 North Water Street. The end of the business came when their four-story building became engulfed in flames on a March evening in 1894. The fire quickly spread to three other buildings on the block and caused the evacuation of the Battle House Hotel to the west. Losses were estimated at $200,000 or nearly $7 million today. The hotel survived that fire but would not be as fortunate a decade later.

Two years later, the firm of Leinkauf and Strauss still appeared in the city directory, but its listing stated it to be “In Liquidation.” In 1897, Mr. Strauss died, and his widow went on to marry merchant Leopold Hammel whose name was synonymous with a fine department store in Mobile for decades.

Leinkauf left dry goods for banking, and established William H. Leinkauf & Son, a firm advertising itself as “a general banking business able to draw bills of exchange, buy and sell foreign exchange, receive deposits and make collections in all part of the South.” The firm was located on St. Francis Street, east of Royal in a block lined with other commercial and savings banks.

An International Consul

In addition to running the bank, Leinkauf served on the school board and as vice consul for Denmark, Holland, Norway and Sweden. His wife was an accomplished singer and, in May 1897, was invited to participate in a special event at the new McGill Institute. According to a news account, she “sang the principal parts in ‘The Seven Last Words of Christ,’ and her voice was never heard to better advantage.” Interestingly, both Mr. and Mrs. Leinkauf were devout Jews and pillars of the Jackson Street Temple.

Leinkauf died in 1901 at the age of 74. His will left money to several charities, including $500 each to “the Catholic Female Orphans Asylum on Conti Street and the Protestant Orphan’s Asylum on Dauphin Street.” That $500 bequest would be worth well over $17,000 today.

The School

Two years later, the new elementary school in one of the fastest-growing residential districts in Mobile was named in Leinkauf’s memory. 

The original structure was one story above a raised basement and contained just four classrooms. The building was enlarged in 1907 to two stories and a wing was added in 1911, all in a style “reminiscent of a Romanesque fortress.”

Exactly 90 years after its dedication to Mr. Leinkauf, a fire attributed to lightning left the historic structure a smoldering ruin. With support from many prominent alumni in the area, the school was rebuilt and enlarged with an exterior reminiscent of the original but with state-of-the-art interiors.

The popular district and the very historic school at its center are appropriately named for a man who was generous with his time and his money to make Mobile a better place.

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