by Jeff Crandall
Chicago’s ethnic clubs were the real driving force behind the game before the professional era began and today, many of them still exist. ChicagoNASL.com is exploring the history of some of Chicago’s top amateur ethnic sides. Second in the series, A.C. Schwaben.
Trek up to Chicago’s north suburbs and you’ll find a soccer treasure.
Sitting on 18 acres in Buffalo Grove are the headquarters of Schwaben A.C. – one of Chicago’s oldest, active soccer clubs and one whose history is as rich as its forward-thinking vision.
Founded by German immigrants who were disaffected by a lack of playing time with one of the more popular sporting clubs in the 1920s, 11 men broke away from the Chicago Sport Club in 1926 to form their own organization.
As 10 of them hailed from the south German state of Wurttenburg where the Schwiabisch dialect is widely spoken, they landed on the name Fussball Club Schwaben.
Their colors though? That was a little more political.
“The 11th man was Bavarian and wanted the club to wear blue and white,” explained club Vice President and Historian Horst Lichtenberger. “He wanted representation for Bavaria and they needed 11 to play, so he swung it that way and everyone agreed.”
Despite their relatively small numbers at the beginning, the original Schwaben group was very active as a sporting club, having offshoot teams participate in other disciplines including bowling, swimming, skiing and athletics, prompting them to be renamed as Schwaben Athletic Club. It was in track and field where they especially excelled, winning a number of Midwest competitions in the 1920s and 1930s and even propelling club member and future president Frank Teschner to represent the United States in the javelin competition at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.
Soccer, though, remained at the center of the club’sir efforts.
Beginning in the third division of the International Soccer Football League (the precursor to the National Soccer League of Chicago), it took Schwaben just three years to move up to the Major Division. Four years after that, they won the league title in 1933 – the first of four league crowns over the course of the next five years.
This success on the field prompted the club to begin showing its vision for the future. In 1938, Schwaben began organizing youth teams, developing players that would eventually represent the first team. Beyond that, they purchased their first clubhouse, putting down roots in the city of Chicago at 3246 N. California, just north of Belmont Avenue in 1941.
Remodeled by its members with a bar and kitchen and conversion of the garage into a locker room, the house became the epicenter of all activity for the growing club.
“It was open fields in those times,” said club President and former Schwaben player Willy Schaeffer. “I remember we used to dress in the garage of the clubhouse and we practiced Tuesdays and Thursdays, had meetings on Fridays, parties on Saturdays and on Sundays we played. We were there almost seven days a week.”
The forward thinking began to pay dividends as the 1950s proved to be vintage years for the club, winning six successive league champions from 1955-1960. They also made it all the way to the 1956 National Challenge Cup (now U.S. Open Cup) Final, falling 3-1 on aggregate to the Hammarville Hurricanes of Pennsylvania.
With their success came a burgeoning membership, which saw them outgrow their original clubhouse and have to move to a bigger space at 4265 N. Elston Avenue in 1960.
After returning from U.S. military service in the early 1960s, Schaeffer was part of the Schwaben team that went to the semifinals of the National Challenge Cup in 1964 and the U.S. Amateur Cup championship side that same year, a title they would win again 34 years later.
“The Amateur Cup wins are our crowning achievements,” said Schaeffer, “but establishing a presence where we could have our own fields is just as big a part of our legacy.”
While good for parties, their move to Elston Avenue wasn’t as convenient from a soccer standpoint.
“We always wanted to have our own place, with our own soccer fields,” said Lichtenberger. “Some of the members long before that were always out to scout around to see if they could buy a place and there was just never enough money to go out and get one.”
That’s why club Treasurer Ed Braun decided to create soccer field shares that could help raise money for a potential $28,000 land purchase in what was then Vernon Township in 1970.
“I was hitting up members for $100,” Braun said. “I’d have someone give me $100, another $200, someone $500 and the idea was if you get enough together, we could raise more capital and buy the land.”
The money started to come in gradually, gaining $6,000 through membership shares before receiving a $10,000 donation from club member Edgar Anstett. More than halfway to the goal, Braun asked the bank that he worked for to provide a loan and make up the rest of the cash needed, but he schemed in terms of how it would be re-paid.
“I had a guarantee from the bank that they would cover me, but I didn’t tell the members,” Braun chuckled. “They were still worried about whether or not we were going to make it. I had the guarantee in my pocket, but I wasn’t going to tell them because I wanted to make sure that I got the money from the members. It worked, I was lucky. I didn’t have to go to the bank and pay the interest rate.”
Two years later with fields ready to go and a newly finished field house which featured a concession stand and locker rooms, the club held its first annual soccer tournament, which for a long time was rated as the best in the Midwest, with clubs coming from all over the country to participate.
“We had only the best teams – from Michigan, Missouri, a team from Canada, New York, Kentucky, and Los Angeles,” said Horst. “We had participation from throughout the country. For years we had the premier tournament. We didn’t even have to ask, they just wanted to come.”
With a view to building a permanent clubhouse on the land, that same year, Schwaben partnered with Schwaben Vereim, a long-running German social club in the area, and worked together to purchase 10 more acres for fields across the street.
After selling bonds to raise money for the structure, the physical home for Schwaben debuted in 1982. Now known as Schwaben Center, the building brings together the social and sporting aspects of the club in the way that its other temporary homes haven’t.
Over time, the facilities have proven to be top notch, having hosted events for the German and Japanese Women’s National Teams in 2001, training sessions for El Salvador during the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup and will be utilized by the Costa Rica during their stop in Chicago for Copa America this summer.
The move to Buffalo Grove combined with lessening German emigration to the United States has seen the club transition from a German nationality and second generation German-American club to one that is largely an American-born membership, with many diverse backgrounds.
“We have a league of nations here, as far as members are concerned,” said Schaeffer. “Today we have 25 youth teams and obviously those kids are all American, but they’re Latino, Eastern European, Indonesian and a pretty big delegation of Jewish families – they all like it here. We try to make it home for everybody. It’s a club, but it’s a family.”
As the now diverse club gets set to celebrate its 90th anniversary this November, the hints of German influence still exist around Schwaben Center. For a taste, head to a first team match on Sunday where pockets of German still can be heard by fans commenting on the game. At halftime, head to the concession stand for a four dollar bratwurst and wash it down with a three dollar pint of beer.