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Louis Penningroth and family papers and research files

Identifier: Y.USA.53


The collection consists of biographical material and personal papers of Louis Penningroth, a YMCA secretary and minister who worked in Europe during World War I, and who in 1917-1918, traveled to Russia to secure the release of Allied prisoners of war. Included are materials from Louis Penningroth's time serving as a secretary of the YMCA; personal correspondence and family records; and secondary research materials complied by Phil Penningroth, grandson of Louis, to write a book on his grandfather's prisoner release mission during WWI. Also included are two copies of the manuscript written by Phil Penningroth. The bulk of the material consists of professional reports and correspondence, primarily copies acquired by Phil Penningroth as part of his research, documenting Louis Penningroth's time with the YMCA during World War I (1914-1918). Much of the copied material comes from collections held by the Hoover Institution, and some from other collections in the YMCA Archives, among other repositories. Other material includes personal correspondence of both the Blythe and Penningroth families, and farm records, as well as materials relating to Louis Penningroth's ministries, and books written by Penningroth family members. There are also two boxes of handwritten notecards, presumably by Louis Penningroth. One box has handwritten notecards on various subjects, referencing bible passages, books, quotes, key words, all organized by year, from 1911-1918. One box has typewritten words pasted on affirmation notecards, labeled with a subject term, including relevant key words. It is unclear as to how Louis Penningroth used these notecards.


  • 1909-2004
  • Majority of material found within ( 1914-1919)


Language of Materials


Use of Materials:

This collection is protected by the Copyright Law of the United States (Title 17, U.S. Code). It is the user's responsibility to verify copyright, ownership, and to obtain all the necessary permissions prior to the reproduction, publication, or other use of any portion of these materials.


Louis Philip Penningroth was born on November 19, 1888, in Red Oak Grove, about five miles north of Tipton, Iowa on the family farm. He had seven living siblings, and was the third eldest child after his brother Charles and sister Martha. He learned German in the family home, and didn't fully learn English until his school years. Louis graduated from Tipton high school in 1908, with intentions of moving on directly to college. However, he was convinced to stay and work on the family farm another year, while also teaching at the high school. Following his older brother Charles, Louis began attending the University of Iowa in 1909, and graduated in 1913. At Iowa, he became involved in the University chapter of the YMCA, and served as President of that organization for three years. He subsequently attended Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

During World War I, Louis worked in Austria for the YMCA war relief, working with POWs from the Eastern Front, including Russian prisoners of war. It was from this experience he learned Russian. Once the United States entered the war, in April 1917 Louis was expelled from Austria, as he was a citizen of a combatant country. He returned to the United States briefly, then travelled to Russia to assist the troops in Moscow and St. Petersburg, serving as the YMCA Secretary of War Prisoners Aid . In June, 1918, the Allies intervened in Northern Russia, and soon after that in October 1918, there was an assassination attempt on Lenin's life. As a result, all foreigners were expelled from Russia, and Louis was one of the last to leave the country.

Louis was then stationed in Copenhagen in early 1919, where he learned of a number of Allied soldiers being held as prisoners of war by the Bolsheviks, captured during the Allied intervention in North Russia months before. While he was unable to obtain an official visa, he did receive special travel documents from charities and government officials in Scandinavia, and headed to the Russian border town of Vyborg, where he convinced the authorities there to let him enter the country, and then went directly to Moscow to work on freeing the Allied POWs. He was able to convince Lenin's Foreign Commissar, Georgy Chicherin, to allow six American and six British POWs to leave the country with him, but it was his responsibility to determine who would go with him and who would remain in the prison. Louis interviewed candidates before making a selection. His travel group included the twelve liberated POWs, one woman, and a bulldog abandoned by an American business man. In April, 1919, Louis turned over the liberated men to the American and British ambassadors in Stockholm, and returned to the United States. Once stateside, Louis was bombarded with anti-Bolshevik sentiments, and the disapproval of the YMCA. He was expelled from the organization, and was required to remain silent on his experiences abroad.

In September, 1919, Louis married Ethel Blythe and focused on his religious vocation. Louis was ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1921, and around mid-October of that same year, Louis was appointed the minister of the Lowry Hill Congregational Church, on the corner of Franklin and Dupont Avenues, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In 1922, the Lowry Hill Church was destroyed by fire and plans were made to rebuild at a new location on 21st Street and Lake of the Isles Boulevard as Lake of the Isles Church. The construction was hampered by opposition from parts of the neighborhood and financial difficulties. Ultimately, Louis resigned from Lake of the Isles Church in 1927 and went on to serve at churches in the Iowa cities of Atalissa, Davenport, and Red Oak Grove. Louis additionally ran the family farm in Tipton while raising a family with Ethel. Louis enjoyed writing of his experiences, including the self-published Horse and Buggy Days, about his childhood on the farm in Iowa, as well as Retirement and You, Modern Proverbs, and More Modern Proverbs.


7.4 Cubic Feet (8 boxes)


Records documenting the life of Louis Penningroth, who served in the YMCA's international POW-relief efforts during WWI in Europe and Russia. Includes Penningroth family papers, as well as research compiled by Phil Penningroth for a novel detailing Louis's trip to Russia to negotiate the release of Allied POWs in 1919.


These documents are organized into the following sections:

  1. Family Records
  2. Research Files
  3. Manuscripts


Adiditional information about Louis Penningroth is available in the Biographical Files in the Kautz Family YMCA Archives.

Processing Information:

Processed by: Kathryn Oosterhuis and Lara Friedman-Shedlov, January 2012, June 2014.

Catalog Record ID number: 9973347302401701

An Inventory of Papers and Research Files
Finding aid prepared by Kathryn Oosterhuis and Lara Friedman-Shedlov.
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
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Collecting Area Details

Contact The Kautz Family YMCA Archives Collecting Area