Biography of William A. Kehnast
Northwestern Ohio Biographies





WILLIAM AUGUST KEHNAST.

Germany is the Fatherland of countless thousands of brave and sturdy men who left their native country to establish homes in foreign lands, and wherever located brought with them the national characteristics of honest dealing, industry and thrift, and that energy and bravery which has caused many of them to be valiant soldiers in defense of liberty in every adopted country wherein they lived; while in politics, finance, arts, sciences and literature many reflect honor and glory upon the land that gave them birth. No country in the world has been benefited more by the emigration to it of this indomitable and brave race than the United States, in every portion of which the labor and genius of that people have been a prominent factor in its growth, improvement and development. Of that race is descended the subject of this biographical notice, and from them he inherited characteristics that made him in time of war a volunteer soldier in the patriotic army of his adopted country, and in civil life an honored and trusted citizen, and for thirty years a substantial and prosperous merchant of his home city of Defiance.

Mr. Kehnast was born March 17, 847, in the village of Mohrenbach, Thuriengen, near the city of Erfurt, Germany. Christian Kehnast, his father, was a prosperous business man, and a manufacturer of cloths, while his mother, Henrietta (Haueisen) Kehnast, was a member of a wealthy and prominent family of that place. They were highly respected in the community, were members of the Lutheran Church, and carefully reared their children, that they might grow up honest and useful citizens. They both died in Germany, the parents of five children. Amid such surroundings our subject was reared until the age of thirteen, from the age of six attending school. The lad, however, was of an ambitious, aspiring nature, and when very young had conceived a strong desire to travel and visit far away lands, so much so That when a brother, August Kehnast, who had been a resident of near Tonawanda, Erie county, New York, for some six years, wrote to his home in Germany, requesting that young William A. should come to him in America, the latter gladly availed himself of the chance. His mother was then a widow, her husband having died two years previously; so our subject, with his mother's consent, and blessing, embarked at Bremen on a steamship bound for New York, where, then a lad of thirteen summers, he arrived in June, 1860, and at once proceeded to the home of his brother in Erie county, New York, at which time he could speak no English. Determined to learn, however, the following winter he attended an English school. In the spring of 1861, he, with his brother and brother's family, migrated west to Henry county, Ohio, arriving at Florida in that county, March 17, 1861, his brother locating on a farm near that town. But in May of the same year, our subject, still being desirous of learning and laying the foundation for possible success, went to Florida, Ohio, and accepted employment in a grocery store, for six months working for little or nothing, learning rapidly, however, not only the English language, but the business methods of the country, which at that time was worth more to him than high wages. He was subsequently employed a short time in a grocery store at Napoleon, Ohio, and in the summer of 1862, he came to Defiance, Ohio, becoming a clerk in the grocery store of J. B. Weisenberger, during the following winter attending school.

This was the second year of the war of the great Rebellion, and the German lad had become so strongly imbued with the patriotic spirit of the times that he was anxious to become a soldier in the Union cause. Consequently, on an occasion in 1862 when a party of volunteer soldiers were leaving Defiance for the front, without notifying his employer, he boarded the railroad train with them. On arriving at Camp Dennison, near Cincinnati, he wanted to be sworn in as a soldier, but, on account of his size and youth, the officers refused to accept him. He was then "in a fix" with no money to take him back home. He had been there about a week, when one morning he was pleased to receive a letter from Mr. Veisenberger, requesting him to return to Defiance, also promising him increased wages. He at once returned and resumed work in the grocery. With Mr. Weisenberger he continued until the summer of 1863; but the war fever being still strong in his heart, he one day notified Mr. Weisenberger that he was going to enlist, and with a fellow clerk and comrade, Maurice Welsh, proceeded to Toledo, Ohio, and there enlisted August 5, 1863, in Company E, Ninth Regiment Ohio Volunteer Cavalry, which company was soon sent to Camp Dennison. Here the regiment was organized and mustered in, and soon was sent to Louisville, Kentucky, whence it marched through Tennessee to Athens, Alabama. At that place Mr. Kehnast was detailed as orderly on the staff of General Dodge, then commander of the left wing of the Sixteenth Army Corps, in which position he served until disabled, when he was sent to the hospital at Nashville, Tennessee, thence to Cleveland, Ohio. Having recovered sufficiently, he made a visit to Defiance on a short furlough, and was then ordered to report at Louisville, Kentucky. He was anxious to rejoin his old company and regiment, but on reaching Louisville he was ordered on detached duty, to act as train guard on the railroad train running back and forth on the Louisville & Nashville railroad, between those two cities. In this position he was kept until the close of the war, during which time all his wages were sent to Mr. Weisenberger. On July 26, 1867, he was honorably discharged and mustered out at Columbus, Ohio, whence he immediately left for Defiance, arriving there during the night, and the very next morning resumed his work for Mr. Weisenberger.

In that occupation he remained until the spring of 1867, by which time he had accumulated sufficient capital to buy a half interest in a grocery store at Defiance, the firm becoming Wolfrum & Kehnast. This was a successful venture, and was continued until 1870, when he sold his part of the business, and purchased for cash a half interest in the hardware business of J. H. Vevington, Mr. Kehnast associating himself with C. F. Switzer, under the firm name of Switzer & Kehnast. This enterprise developed into a very extensive and successful business, becoming the leading store in its line and carrying a larger stock than any other store of its kind in Defiance.

In 1875, having acquired a prosperous and large business, and earned a vacation, Mr. Kehnast made a visit to his native place, and again met the aged mother and renewed old and loved associations. This proved to be the last time parent and son met, as the mother was laid to rest four years afterward. During this trip to the Fatherland Mr. Kehnast visited many places of historic interest, including Wartburg, where Luther was so long imprisoned and where he finished the translation of the Bible; the city of Berlin, at which place he visited his brother Richard, then a soldier in the German army; thence went to Magdeburg and Cassel; and saw the place, Wilhelmhöhe, where Napoleon III was imprisoned after his capture at Sedan in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870: to the historic cities of Darmstadt, Heidelberg and Frankfort, thence to Basel, in Switzerland; from there to the famous city of Strassburg, on to Carlsruhe; and later to the old and famous city of Worms, where he crossed the Rhine and returned to his native place. He afterward tarried a while at the city of Hanover, from there proceeding to Bremen, at which port he embarked on a steamer for Southampton, England, where he spent a short time in viewing that city. He then continued on his journey homeward, by the way of New York, and arrived at Defiance after a most enjoyable three months' trip, invigorated and possessed of renewed energy to again take up the cares of business. The hardware store was continued under the firm name until the death of C. F. Switzer January 21, 1888, when Mr. Kehnast bought the interest of his deceased partner, and he has since carried on the business alone.

Mr. Kehnast may be correctly styled a self made man. With no means except his hands and brain, he landed on the shores of America a lad of thirteen, a stranger unfamiliar with the language of the country; at sixteen was a volunteer soldier in the army of his adopted country in a great war; at eighteen he had accumulated sufficient capital to conduct a profitable business on his own account; and at the age of twenty three he was half owner of his present large and extensive hardware business. To his native and natural ability he constantly added by study and application, and thus became a disciplined man, having "the control of himself." This, combined with strict integrity and a most genial and social nature, naturally made for him friends, inspired confidence and secured trade.

Socially, Mr. Kehnast is an active and interested working member of the Masonic fraternity, and is past eminent commander; a 32nd degree Mason, and a member of the Scottish Rite; is a member of the Grand Army of the Republic, and is a past commander of Bishop Post, No. 22, Department of Ohio, at Defiance. In religious faith he is a Lutheran. He has always taken an active interest in the politics of the country, affiliating with the Democratic party, and using his influence and means liberally in different campaigns, and on several occasions has been elected to and served in local offices of honor and trust, such as treasurer of Defiance city; member and president of the city school board; member of the city council, etc., in all of which he acquitted himself with honor and fidelity to the public interests. He has been an extensive and observant traveler through Canada and the United States, from the upper lakes to New Orleans, Florida, and the Gulf of Mexico, and from the prominent cities of the Atlantic coast to the far West. He is one of the most thoroughly informed of the business men of Defiance, as well as one of its most substantial and highly respected citizens.

In 1870 Mr. Kehnast was married to Miss Jennie Kniss, who died in June, 1879, leaving two children: Nellie, born in 1871. was married March 1, 1893, to Godfried M. Watkins, and resides at Defiance; and Minnie, born in 1872, resides with her father. In 1887 Mr. Kehnast was married to Miss Lizzie Sauer, his present wife. The family reside at No. 646 Jefferson street, in a handsome and cozy home built bye Mr. Kehnast in 1871.

From:
Commemorative Biographical Record of Northwestern, Ohio
Including the counties of
Defiance, Henry, Williams and Fulton
Published by: J. H. Beers and Company
Chicago, Illinois
1899


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