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Borderlands: Olga Kohlberg Pioneered Many Local Organizations 20 (2001-2002)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Olga Kohlberg Pioneered Many Local Organizations

Article first published in Vol. 20, 2001-2002.  Updated in 2018

By Alaine Bracken  

"The building of a city is not entirely the work of men. There are phases of city building when the work of courageous, well educated women overshadows that of their husbands, fathers, brothers,” Mrs. Charles A. Goetting said in 1972 in a tribute to Olga Kohlberg.

In an article for Password, the journal of the El Paso Historical Society, Goetting wrote that Kohlberg “brought European culture to the banks of the Rio Grande.” Olga Bernstein was born in Elberfeld, Westphalia (then a part of Rhenish Prussia) in 1864. She was well educated, having attended the Elberfeld Seminary. She married Ernst Kohlberg on June 22, 1884.

""Image caption: Olga Kohlberg in 1884, the year she married Ernst Kohlberg .  Photo courtesy of the El Paso Historical Society.

Olga Kohlberg told of first coming to El Paso in 1884: “I found a busy, thriving city, claiming 5,000 inhabitants, of whom, then as now, two-thirds were Mexicans. The two races lived in harmony; there was no feeling of superiority of one over the other. It was not so long ago that common danger from the Indian had drawn them close, and that the official language of the court and of political speeches, was Spanish. The valley bloomed like a rose; wheat fields and vineyards stretched out between here and Ysleta. … The rosy beauty of the apricot and peach blossoms in February rivaled famed Japan. It was indeed a land of plenty.”

As soon as Olga Kohlberg set foot in El Paso, she learned English and Spanish, knowing both would be beneficial to her. While making herself welcome in the community, the new bride from Germany enthusiastically started and became a part of many organizations.

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As Olga Kohlberg’s own children were born, she became concerned about their education. She and a group of 17 women formed the Child Culture Club in 1892. The main objective of this group was “the study of child training and the promotion of kindergarten in the public schools.” The members of the group bought equipment and hired a teacher from St. Louis, Missouri, and started the first private kindergarten in El Paso.

Kohlberg was familiar with the concept of kindergarten, which originated in her native Germany. Friedrich Wilhelm Froebel invented the concept of teaching children three to seven in pleasant surroundings. Self-motivated activity, play, music and physical training were featured in his first kindergarten, which opened in 1837.

Froebel thought of children like tiny flowers: they are varied and need care, but each is beautiful alone and glorious when seen in the community of peers. “My schools shall be called kindergarten ‒ the garden of children,” Froebel wrote.

Kohlberg, Mrs. Henry A. True and Mrs. J. E. Townsend persuaded the school board to begin a kindergarten in the Central School, offering their equipment, materials and teacher. In September 1893, the first public kindergarten in Texas opened its doors on the corner of Myrtle and Campbell Streets.

The women continued to support the program by paying $10 monthly toward the teacher’s salary for the first year. The El Paso Daily Herald reported that in the kindergarten’s spring program on May 18, 1894, “the little ones sang and acted the part of birds, bees, butterflies, flowers and other things suggestive of spring time.”

Sepiar photo of the Kohlbergs in front of Niagara FallsImage caption: Ernst and Olga Kohlberg at Niagara Falls in 1892.  Photo courtesy of the El Paso Public Library.

After the first year, the board of trustees saw the worth of the kindergarten program and included kindergartens in the elementary schools thereafter.

In 1892, while waiting at the railroad depot in El Paso, Kohlberg was shocked to see a sick man die before her eyes. Feeling that no one should be put through such horror, she helped form the Ladies’ Benevolent Association. This group of women opened one of the first hospitals in town on Oregon Street near the train depot.

The women of the churches of El Paso were on the governing board of the association. No professional nurses were available, so the hospital was staffed by volunteers. In January 1894, a new hospital opened: Hotel Dieu. Kohlberg then turned her attention from kindergartens and hospitals to libraries.

Mary Stanton, a beloved teacher in the public school, created a reading room for the boys she taught, and from this, the first El Paso Public Library began in 1895. It was run and financed by the first Library Association, a group of five women, including Olga Kohlberg.

Stanton later served as president of the Library Association for more than a quarter of a century. During this time she encouraged the librarians to provide the best quality services and materials for the library, even though the city allocated only a meager amount of money. She was on the board when it received money from Andrew Carnegie to build El Paso Public Library’s first building.

Yet another project involving children that interested Kohlberg was the establishment of the Cloudcroft Baby Sanatorium in New Mexico. The baby Sanatorium was created to save babies who were dying from the intense heat in El Paso. Kohlberg recruited her son in-law, Dr. Branch Craige, to be the physician and director of the sanatorium. The babies were taken on a small train to the cool pines in Cloudcroft. When homes and hospitals began to be cooled in town, the sanatorium closed.

Kohlberg also helped organize the Current Topics Club, later reorganized into the Woman’s Club. She was president of the Woman’s Club two time lifetime honorary board member and a vice-president of the State Federation of Woman’s Clubs. Kohlberg participated in the Civic League, an auxiliary of the Woman’s Club, which was created to improve the sanitary and aesthetic conditions in the city, particularly in the schools. 

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In the early 20th century, thirsty children in schoolyards drank from open buckets of water with dippers. The El Paso Daily Herald on Feb. 28, 1902, reported, “This morning the children of the Mesa School rebelled and upset the filthy water, then hammered on the bucket with the dippers to call the janitor to get water they could drink.” Mary Cunningham, historian for the Woman’s Club, explained it was such conditions that the women tackled and sought to change.

The Woman’s Club also began the first municipal cleanup day, beginning with the city parks. According to Kohlberg, “Our thrifty women dug and sowed and planted and weeded, making quite an impression on the parks.” Under her guidance, this group restored the city’s three parks, and San Jacinto Plaza became a garden spot.

Kohlberg and her family helped organize and build the Mount Sinai Jewish Congregation in 1898. By 1903, the Jewish community began construction of Temple Mount Sinai. Olga Kohlberg also helped organize the Jewish Welfare Association.

Black and white photo of Ernst Kohlberg Image caption: Ernst Kohlberg in 1873, the year of his arrival in El Paso. Photo courtesy of the El Paso County Historical Society

Olga and Ernst Kohlberg were parents of four children, including three sons, Walter, Herbert and Leo, and a daughter, Else (Mrs. Branch Craige). Olga Kohlberg became a widow unexpectedly in 1910 when her husband was shot and killed by a man who owed him money.

Olga Bernstein Kohlberg participated in community and educational services throughout her life. The El Paso County Historical Society inducted her into the El Paso Hall of Honor in November 1972. In 1997, the El Paso School District honored her by naming an elementary school after her on the West side of town at 1445 Nardo Goodman Dr., a fitting accolade to a woman who worked tirelessly for children and her larger community to make El Paso a modern, caring city.



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