This is a brief biographical sketch about Charles Toelpe (sometimes spelled Topel, Tölpe or Tolpie). Toelpe was a successful sugar refiner who developed a small portion of the former LaBrousse vineyard.
Charles Toelpe was born in 1835 in Prussia and died 47 years later during an explosion in a sugar factory. Sadly, he had little time to enjoy the grand home that he had built for his family on Morris Street.
Long before settling in Southwark, Toelpe made several trips to Cuba which were likely connected to his work as a sugar refiner. Early immigration records place Toelpe in New York in 1864, having disembarked off a ship that departed from Bremen. Two years later, Toelpe sailed from Havana to New York on the Columbia and, in 1869, he made a similar journey to Philadelphia on the Stars and Stripes.
Toelpe’s wife Agnes was born in 1846 in Kiel and they were married sometime during the 1860s. Agnes appears to have joined her husband for some of his travels around the Atlantic. She was in New York in 1867 for the birth of their daughter Laura and in Cuba in 1869 for the birth of their son Charles.
Curiously, when the Toelpe family traveled to Philadelphia in 1869, young Laura and newborn Charles were not listed on the ship manifest. Instead, records indicate that Toelpe and his wife were traveling with two other small children, John (born around 1861) and Mary (born around 1863). These children may have been related to Otto Toelpe, possibly a brother, who was living in Philadelphia around that time. Toelpe’s own children were likely present for the journey as well but may not have been noted on ship records due to their infancy.
Shortly after arriving in Philadelphia, Toelpe and his family settled into a rental home on Mead (Fitzwater) Street, between Swanson and 2nd Streets, in Southwark. Census records indicate that they had two boarders in their home, laborers Frederick Lauder (born around 1840) and Frank Willborn (born around 1851). John and Mary, the two children that traveled with the Toelpes to Philadelphia, were likely reunited with their own family by this time as they are not listed as living in the Mead Street house.
In 1872, Toelpe found employment with the newly formed W.J. McCahan Sugar Company. Toelpe’s familiarity with Cuba may have initially benefitted the company when it came to importing raw materials for the sugar refining process. However, once the refinery at the foot of Tasker Street opened, Toelpe became responsible for overseeing its operations.
Two years later, Toelpe and his family relocated to another rental home on Jefferson (Moyamensing) Avenue which overlooked the LaBrousse vineyard. This location also had the advantage of placing Toelpe within walking distance of the McCahan Sugar Refinery. Around this time, Toelpe began exploring interests outside of the workplace. Newspaper records indicate that he was elected as a member of the German Society of Philadelphia in 1873. Toelpe also became active in the Maennercher Singing Society and joined the Columbia Chapter of the Knights Templar.
In 1877, the LaBrousse vineyard ceased operations, leaving several acres of land available for development. Rather than sell the entire vineyard to one buyer, LaBrousse’s heirs subdivided the land into smaller lots which were sold to individuals. James Johnston, a blacksmith, and his wife Anna purchased fourteen lots on the north side of Watkins Street. To the north, Toelpe purchased three adjacent lots on Morris Street as well as a house built by LaBrousse’s granddaughter.
By 1879, Toelpe had built three houses on Morris Street, the largest of which was used as a home for his family. Located between two plainer tenements, the Toelpe home was distinguishable for possessing distinctive architectural flourishes, traces of which survive to this day. The entryway, which is large when compared to other houses on the street, probably featured an elliptical fanlight above the front door and sidelights flanking the entrance. Although these glass elements have been removed, the remaining brick segmental archway and marble keystone detail suggest that the entrance was designed with light in mind. By contrast, the adjacent properties Toelpe built for rental purposes merely contained a simple rectangular light in the transom above each door, a design that is consistent with neighboring properties.
Unfortunately, Toelpe only had a few short years to enjoy the stately home that he had built for his family. On October 25, 1882, he died during an explosion in a Louisiana sugar refinery.
Every fall, Toelpe had traveled to Viterabo Edmee’s plantation in the St. Charles parish in order to superintendent the “taking off” of their sugar cane crop. According to the Times-Picayune, “at the time of the accident, [Toelpe] was in the refinery with Mr. F. H. Lovejoy, one of the managers of the establishment, watching a centrifugal machine in operation. The machine was running about 400 revolutions a minute when it suddenly burst, the flying fragments striking Mr. Toelpe and killing him almost instantly and wounding Mr. Lovejoy.”
Less than a week later, Toelpe’s body was returned to his family and memorial services were held in his home on Morris Street. He was buried on October 31, 1882 at the Mount Vernon Cemetery.