Fairfield’s Early Immigrant Restaurateurs | A Brief History of Dining in Fairfield, Iowa

Philip Lang built this Swiss-style house at 507 E. Burlington, Fairfield, in the late 1870s. Lang ran afoul of the law when officials found 45 cases of Illinois beer and whiskey hidden in his barn in 1890. (Photo courtesy of Tom Crandall)

Among Fairfield’s early restaurateurs, three German immigrants—G. Philip Lang, Phillip Sauer, and C. A. “Otto” Woellhaf—flourished the longest, for over 140 years combined.

Philip Lang

Born in Oppenheim on the Rhine in 1837, George Philip Lang left Germany in 1854 with his sister and her husband, who came to Jefferson County. After learning to bake with an uncle in New York, by 1860 Lang worked his brother-in-law’s farm in Germanville in Jefferson County, where he married Magdalena Herman two years later. In 1864 he opened a bakery on Fairfield square’s south side, offering groceries, baked goods, confectionery, and homemade ice cream. He bought 56 E. Burlington in 1868 and next year reopened his bakery there. Lang’s restaurant and oyster-and-beer saloon was now the best in the city.

In 1875 he sold the property to Senator James F. Wilson, who razed it and built the block surrounding the new First National Bank. Lang had bought 54 E. Burlington in 1871; now he replaced the wooden structure with a beautiful white-stone-front building. The front room’s fancy shelving displayed his confections, while in back was his walnut-furnished “Palace Restaurant and Saloon.” In his well-lit basement an 8×12-foot oven could make 2,200 loaves daily, and in 1881 he provided free delivery of his popular Vienna bread. Next year he built a rear addition with another oven, probably for his restaurant kitchen.

Lang’s beer, wine, and cider sales brought problems. His brother-in-law and bartender Mike Kreiner was once bloodied by a woman to whom he had refused beer, and three times Mrs. Richard Van Doren wrecked Lang’s saloon after her husband came home drunk, long before Carrie Nation popularized saloon-smashing. Alcohol was profitable; in 1878 Lang began paying the town’s new annual saloon fee of $300—nearly $7,000 today—and next year built his grand Swiss-style house at 507 E. Burlington. But in 1880 Lang’s saloon-neighbor W.H. Davis shot himself, depressed by his incurable alcoholism. Lang was first on the scene; what could he say to Davis’s widow?

In 1883 Lang’s restaurant ceased selling alcohol, but officials raided his barn in 1890 and seized 45 cases of Illinois beer and whiskey. Temporarily enjoined from carrying liquors, he petitioned unsuccessfully for a saloon permit in 1894. That year he offered his house for sale. In 1897 after 33 years on the square, he sold 54 E. Burlington and moved to Ottumwa, where he died in 1920. Fairfielders long remembered the energetic, kindly, mustachioed Philip Lang for his exquisite ice cream and wedding cakes and the rare night-blooming cereuses displayed in his beautiful home and bakery.

Phillip Sauer

Phillip Sauer was born in Weisenheim am Berg on Christmas Eve in 1863. Like Lang, the teenaged Sauer accompanied his married sister to New York, arriving in 1881, and Sauer’s brother-in-law also farmed northeast of Fairfield. Perhaps Sauer apprenticed with Lang; in 1885 he bought the north-side restaurant at 57 E. Broadway, where, coincidentally, the same Mrs. Richard Van Doren had horse-whipped an offensive store-clerk 20 years earlier. Here Sauer opened a bakery, restaurant, and ice-cream parlor and delivered bread; his “Star Bakery and Restaurant” wagon became a familiar Fairfield sight. He too broke Fairfield’s prohibition law when in 1888 officials found and destroyed a barrel of hard cider in his basement. In 1890 he built a house on Burlington Ave., and his wife Albertina, like Magdalena Lang, had seven children.

fairfield ia, phillip sauer, restaurant delivery wagon

Phillip Sauer’s Star Bakery and Restaurant delivery wagon, shown here circa 1910, was a familiar sight on Fairfield’s streets for decades. The business was located at 57 E. Broadway ca. 1890, where Chickadee, a children’s clothing and toy store, is now. (Photo courtesy of fairfieldiowahistory.com)

In 1905 Sauer bought 109 North Court, where he too placed his baked goods in front, restaurant next, and kitchen in back. He sold his 42-year-old business in 1927 to his children. Phillip Jr. and Dan continued the bakery, and Albert and Dora ran the restaurant until 1944. Sauer died in Fairfield in 1949 aged 85, fondly remembered for his thick oval plates of steak and potatoes, side dishes of vegetables, generous helpings of homemade ice cream and delicious peanut-butter cookies.

Otto Woellhaf

Charles Adolph “Otto” Woellhaf was born in 1860, probably in Wurttemberg, Germany. He came in 1873 with his family to Burlington, Iowa, and in 1879 to Fairfield, where he worked for Philip Lang and then for Phillip Sauer. In 1888 Otto bought his “Post-Office Restaurant” at 108 S. Main, keeping it about 17 years. He then moved to 56 W. Burlington, establishing his son Charles H. there when he opened yet another restaurant at 411 N. Fourth.

otto  woellhaf, fairfield ia

"Fresh Oysters" says the sign outside Otto Woellhaf’s Post-Office Restaurant at 108 S. Court circa 1891, where Edward Jones Investments is located now. The Post Office was next door at 110 S. Court. (Photo courtesy of Fairfield Public Library)

Around 1920 Otto bought 410 North Main, where he lived upstairs above his “Q Lunch Room.” Here for almost 30 years he fed hungry townsfolk and Parsons students, and he carried basket-lunches to railroad employees, as the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad trains stopped virtually at his door. He retired in 1947 and died the following year aged 87. The small-statured, great-hearted Otto Woellhaf had been in business for 67 years, longer than anyone else in Fairfield.


Fairfield residents Rory and Rena Goff enjoy researching the area’s history. Rena is an agent at Village Realty and can be reached at  919-7423.